UF Health Central Florida celebrates major milestone in treatment of atrial fibrillation
Special to the FMA from UF Health | Nov. 8, 2023

LEESBURG, Fla.— UF Health Central Florida is celebrating the 100th procedure using the latest-generation WATCHMAN FLX™ left atrial appendage closure device. The procedure was performed at UF Health Leesburg Hospital by interventional cardiologist Maria Baldasare, MD.

“The WATCHMAN procedure is a way in which we can take people off blood thinners and still protect them from stroke,” Baldasare said. “Patients get a similar benefit as if they were taking an anticoagulant, Eliquis or warfarin for example, but without that bleeding complication that may occur.”

UF Health Leesburg Hospital was the first in Lake County to offer the device designed to treat patients who develop a potentially dangerous heart rhythm condition known as atrial fibrillation, or AF. An estimated 7 million Americans are affected by AF — an irregular heartbeat that can feel like a quivering heart. People with AF have a greater risk of stroke than those with normal heart rhythms.

Dr. Baldasare’s patient, Philip Martin, 82, of Summerfield, Fla, received the 100th WATCHMAN device. Martin is a cancer survivor and his own father died from a massive stroke. He was diagnosed with AF last year, at the same time he was diagnosed with cancer and was prescribed a daily blood thinner.

UF Health Central Florida interventional cardiologist Maria Baldasare, MD, and her patient, Philip Martin, of Summerfield, Fla.
UF Health Central Florida interventional cardiologist Maria Baldasare, MD, and her patient, Philip Martin, of Summerfield, Fla. Under Dr. Baldasare’s care, Martin became the 100th UF Health Central Florida patient to receive the WATCHMAN FLXTM left atrial appendage closure device. This safe, minimally invasive implant reduces patients’ risk of stroke, ultimately providing an alternative to lifelong use of blood thinners.
“When they mentioned there is something to catch the block clots, that perked my ears up a bit,” said Martin. “I never know when I’m in AF. I asked Dr. Baldasare when am I in AF, and she said, ‘You’re in it right now.’ ”

He learned about the WATCHMAN procedure a few months ago and the benefit it provides in not having to take a daily blood thinner.

“A lot of our patients, especially those who live in The Villages, are very active,” Dr. Baldasare explained. “They play pickle ball and other activities, and it can be quite hazardous if they’re on a blood thinner. So, from a physician satisfaction standpoint, it is actually gratifying to see them do what they like and not be in fear of falling or having a head bleed for example. For the patient, it’s the ultimate return to their quality of life, especially for Mr. Martin. We don’t have to worry about him bleeding and having to come into the hospital all the time.”

The WATCHMAN FLX™ device, built upon the most studied and implanted left atrial appendage closure device in the world, is an alternative to the lifelong use of blood thinners for people with atrial fibrillation that is not caused by a structural heart valve problem (also known as nonvalvular AF). Several UF Health Central Florida cardiologists use the WATCHMAN device, including:

  • Sujata Balulad, MD
  • Maria Baldasare, MD
  • Christopher Jones, MD
  • David Lew, MD
  • Satish Goel, MD
  • Srinivas Attanti, MD

“UF Health Central Florida is proud to offer a world-class heart and vascular program, which provides immediate access to highly sophisticated treatment options and exceptional care to our patients,” says Heather Long, MSN, chief executive officer at UF Health Central Florida. “We strive to be this region’s premier destination for advanced cardiovascular services and the WATCHMAN FLX™ device provides potentially life-changing stroke risk treatment.”

The device closes off an area of the heart called the left atrial appendage to keep harmful blood clots from entering the bloodstream and potentially causing a stroke. By closing off this area of the heart, the risk of stroke may be reduced and, over time, patients may be able to stop taking blood-thinning medication. The latest-generation technology has a new design aimed at helping to treat patients even more effectively to ensure the best possible long-term outcomes.

“With the WATCHMAN procedure, it won’t change the fact Martin has AF,” said Kathy Hough, RN, structural heart coordinator at UF Health Leesburg Hospital. “He’ll still have AF and the device doesn’t control the heart rhythm, but it will put him at a lower risk for having a stroke. It gives patients the freedom of not having to take an anticoagulant so that they can enjoy life.”

The WATCHMAN is a permanent device that does not have to be replaced and can’t be seen outside the body. The procedure to place it is performed under general anesthesia and takes about an hour. Some patients leave the hospital the same day of the procedure. Others spend one or two nights in the hospital. For Martin, the WATCHMAN has improved his quality of life in a short amount of time.

“I feel good about it,” said Martin. “A lot of these meds are hard on your kidneys. I feel good anytime you don’t have to take a medication — and I take a lot of medication. But I won’t have to take a blood thinner now. That’s a huge positive for me.”