Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital is the first in Fort Bend County to treat atrial fibrillation (aFib) not caused by a heart valve problem with a tiny, permanent implant called the Watchman.


The procedure was successfully implanted in a patient on Nov. 2 by electrophysiologist and cardiologist, Jie Cheng, M.D. The Watchman is an FDA-approved alternative to blood thinning drugs such as warfarin, which are typically prescribed to people who suffer from aFib to prevent strokes.


“Because of their irregular heartbeat pattern, patients with aFib often experience blood pooling in a pocket of the heart called the left atrial appendage,” said Cheng. “Over time, that pooled blood can coagulate and cause clots to form. If a blood clot escapes the appendage and moves into an artery, it can eventually block the flow of blood to the brain and cause an ischemic stroke.”


Research shows that 90 percent of the stroke-causing blood clots that come from the heart formed in the left atrial appendage. The Watchman works by plugging off the appendage and preventing blood from pooling and clotting.


Cheng says the Watchman is designed for patients who can no longer take blood thinners due to complications, such as people with a history of major bleeding due to the drug’s side effects, or those who are at higher risk of bleeding from an injury due to active lifestyles or hazardous work.


“The long-term use of a blood thinner creates a higher risk of major bleeding in patients, so the Watchman is a welcome alternative,” said Cheng.


In fact, clinical studies show that 99 out of 100 people fitted with a Watchman can stop taking a blood thinner one year after the procedure.


The Watchman is implanted through a narrow tube that is inserted through a small incision in the patient’s leg and guided to the left atrial appendage. It takes Cheng about an hour to implant the device, and most patients will go home the next day.


“Eventually, heart tissue grows over the Watchman to form a natural barrier against blood clots,” said Cheng.


Cheng plans to continue implanting the Watchman in aFib patients who need an alternative to blood thinners to reduce their risk of stroke.


“The Watchman has been studied for more than 10 years, and more than 50,000 people have received the implant,” Cheng said. “It’s a safe alternative that can provide a very significant benefit for patients.”