Patients at risk for having a stroke are often left with a difficult decision to make: take blood thinning medication, which could cause them to bleed to death, or risk having a clot that might cause a fatal stroke.
Until recently, there were few other options.
76-year-old Elayne Finke is no longer taking blood-thinning medication for the first time in years. The Slayton, Minnesota, woman is especially excited because she suffered a lot of side effects.
"I was having a lot of bleeding. I actually had to come over here with a bloody nose one time because they couldn't get it stopped in Slayton," Finke said.
However, without the medication, Finke would most likely suffer a stroke.
"There are a large number of patients who essentially are at risk of bleeding and major consequences, or if not on blood thinners, the risk of having a stroke as a consequence of clots forming," Sanford Cardiologist Dr. Tom Stys said.
A new, possibly life-saving procedure is now an alternative. Using catheters and two small incisions, doctors close off a section of the heart known as the left atrial appendage where blood clots often form.
Stys says that area of the heart isn't needed, so it's a relatively simple procedure.
"It will be a primary means of treatment, of prevention of stroke,' Stys said.
He compares it to removing an appendix.
"The structure over time scars up and disappears, and as such, the place where the clots would form disappears," Stys said.
After the procedure, patients will not need to use blood thinning medications for the rest of their lives.
"It's just such a relief to be off that Coumadin and be able to not know that if you cut your finger, you are going to bleed to death," Finke said.
On top of that, Finke says she feels great and the procedure was painless.
"I'm glad I had it done," Finke said.
While patients who undergo this procedure won't need blood thinners, they do need to take a low-dose aspirin for the rest of their lives. The procedure is only for patients with heart rhythm problems, known as atrial fibrillation.