SALT LAKE CITY — Each attack felt the same way to Mary Ellen Kaull: A strange feeling in the center of her chest that would travel through her throat and into her teeth.
"Oh, here it comes," Kaull would think.
The most dangerous aspect of atrial fibrillation — irregular, rapid heartbeat — is that it turns a patient's quivering heart into a breeding ground for clots. But blood thinners, the most common treatment option, leave many patients at risk of severe bruising and bleeding.
"If you had a pinprick, you would bleed and bleed," Kaull said.
So when Kaull's son-in-law told her about a trial for a new implantable device that might reduce the risk of stroke without the side effects of bleeding, she didn't think twice.
"Go for it, Pete," Kaull told him.
That was in 2014. Now, after being approved by the FDA last year, the so-called WATCHMAN device will be available to all eligible Utah patients at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Murray for widespread clinical use.
Dr. Brian Whisenant, one of the primary investigators on the national clinical WATCHMAN trial, made the annoucement at a news conference Monday along with Dr. Peter Weiss, Kaull's son-in-law.
Whisenant, who implanted the first WATCHMAN device in a patient 11 years ago, praised the "tremendous sacrifice and commitment" of patients like Kaull who volunteered to get the experimental device implanted in their hearts.
Up to 40 percent of atrial fibrillation patients cannot tolerate blood thinners like warfarin, according to Whisenant. As a result, up to half of those patients — many of them elderly — are not getting treated for stroke risk at all.
Now the WATCHMAN device may provide a nonsurgical alternative for those patients.
Doctors use a catheter to lodge the device — a small mesh parachute about the size of a quarter — into a pouch in the patient's heart where 90 percent of blood clots originate for atrial fibrillation patients.
As tissue grows over the basket, the appendage closes up.
The procedure takes 30 minutes or less and requires a single stitch, according to Whisenant.
Marcia Swenson of Ogden joined the research trial after the blood thinner drug Coumadin started causing lesions on her stomach and intestines. Two months later, Swenson took a fall down a concrete flight of stairs that left her with a broken nose, broken arms and a knocked-out tooth.
Swenson's doctor told her that if she had still been on blood thinners, she likely would have bled out, she said.
"I feel like it saved my life," Swenson said.
Whisenant implanted the first WATCHMAN device in a patient at LDS Hospital in 2005, he said.
After moving the research program to Intermountain Medical Center, early clinical trials found that the combined rate of stroke and death from cardiovascular events was 30 percent less in patients using the device compared to those taking Coumadin.
Actor Wilford Brimley volunteered to get the impant in 2011 and continued to make regular trips from Cody, Wyoming, to Murray for his follow-up appointments.
He eventually testified about the product to the FDA and summed it up this way: "I'm alive and healthy and happy. And I don't take rat poison anymore."
At the news conference, Brimley kept his comments short but grew emotional as he talked about how the device had freed him from blood thinners.
"Thank the Lord, Dr. Whisenant, and all those kids on the team," Brimley said. "Because the worst thing they did to me was save my life and improve the quality, a hundred fold."