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Joyce Ivey, a lively and active 87-year-old woman from Kalispell, is the first patient in Montana to receive an innovative new device in her heart called the Watchman that drastically mitigates the life-threatening consequences of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat.

Last month, a team of cardiologists and specialists at the International Heart Institute in St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula cut a small hole in her upper thigh, and using a flexible wire, pushed the device all the way up through her femoral vein and into the left atrial appendage in her heart. According to cardiologist Tod Maddux, it’s like “working on the engine by going through the muffler.”

Once planted in the heart, the Watchman device opens up like an umbrella and blocks off the chamber to keep blood clots from forming, thereby reducing Ivey’s risk of having a stroke. It's hoped that she'll soon be able to live without powerful blood-thinning drugs, which present all sorts of health risks in their own right, and use only aspirin.

“I feel wonderful,” Ivey said on Thursday as she sat down with the team of five specialists who conducted the procedure on her: cardiologists Maddux (an interventional cardiologist), Simone Musco (an electrophysiologist), Jocelyn Spoon (an echocardiologist), Daniel Spoon (an interventional cardiologist) and physician’s assistant certified Steve Shepro.

Atrial fibrillation affects the heart’s ability to pump blood properly, which can cause blood to pool in the atrial appendage. Blood cells can stick together and form a clot, and when that clot escapes and travels to another part of the body, it can cut off blood supply to the brain, causing a stroke. Many people with an irregular heartbeat take blood thinners for the rest of their lives, but those medicines cause excessive bleeding in other areas of the body for some patients.

Musco said that atrial fibrillation affects between 15 million and 20 million people in the United States, and those numbers could be underreported.

“It’s an equal opportunity disease,” he said, meaning it affects all demographics.

Musco said the team learned the specific procedure through a two-day intensive course, but the vast majority of all heart procedures involve the same method of entering through a vein or an artery. He said that Ivey’s procedure took about an hour, but by the time they performed the procedure on subsequent patients they had it down to 20 minutes.

Jocelyn Spoon plays a vital role in imaging, he said, because she provides the other team members with 3-D images of the body while the device is being inserted so they know exactly where it needs to go and whether it’s off course. They can actually view the heart from the inside with an ultrasonic probe.

“It’s a pioneering team approach,” Musco explained.

He expects as many as a dozen patients per month to be eligible for the procedure.

“It reduces the risk of a stroke down to a manageable amount,” he explained.

As for Ivey, she is extremely thankful that she doesn’t have to worry as much about a stroke and she can take herself off powerful blood-thinners. At 87, she wants to get back to playing golf, going to church and being active in her sorority in Kalispell. She has three daughters and a gaggle of grandchildren, so she’s looking forward to many more years with them.

“It takes a village,” she said. “I’m happy I had such a great crew.”

Ivey said she was a little surprised that she was the first patient to have the procedure in the state.

“I was hoping I would be second or third,” she joked. “But everyone was so wonderful.”

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