It’s hard to slow 87-year-old Francis Wichman down. Born and raised on a Kansas farm without electricity or running water in his early years, Wichman learned as a young man that when something needs to get done, you just do it. His matter-of-fact approach hasn’t changed in the 31 years since his retirement as an automotive plant maintenance supervisor. Whether doing house repairs or yard work, or relaxing with woodwork, or fishing, Wichman is not one sit still.
A heart attack several years back, and a subsequent heart rhythm disorder, however, threatened to give him pause. For several years, Wichman struggled with atrial fibrillation, or afib, a condition causing an irregular and rapid heartbeat that often left him tired and without energy. Afib itself isn’t life-threatening, but if left untreated, can lead to complications such as blood clot, heart failure, or stroke. After several years and procedures, doctors eventually installed a pacemaker to keep Wichman’s heart in rhythm, and prescribed blood thinners to minimize his risk of stroke.
Although effective at reducing the chance of stroke, blood thinners carry their own risks. Frequent bruising with even the slightest bumps is common, and more concerning is the risk of excessive bleeding from falls or other causes. This was a major worry for Wichman and his family, given his age and activity level.
In 2018, Wichman’s cardiologist referred him to board-certified electrophysiologist, Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, MD, of the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute (KCHRI). A world-renowned arrhythmia educator researcher, Dr. Lakkireddy determined Wichman was a candidate for an innovative surgery called the Watchman Procedure, a surgery that can eliminate the need for blood thinners. During the Watchman procedure, a small implant is used to seal off the heart’s left atrial appendage—the area where blood can pool and clot—thus reducing the chances of stroke and allowing patients to stop taking blood thinners. On Aug. 22, 2018, Wichman became the first patient at KCHRI to undergo the procedure. A few short months later, he was back to his regular activities and even better, able to stop taking blood thinners for the first time in 15 years.
“This is a tremendous innovation that benefits patients like Francis, who are at risk for falls and the complications that can occur when they are taking blood thinners,” says Dr. Lakkireddy. “It keeps their risk of stroke lowered, without the side effects and risks of blood thinners.”