Great-grandmother Penny Null, 75, is an avid gardener, baker and quilter. On most days, you can find her at home doing what she loves most. She cooks fresh bread from scratch, often two loaves per week. She patiently cares for her huge garden, freely giving out her canned produce, including green beans, creamed corn and her infamous cinnamon pickles. She’s incredibly crafty, making dresses for her granddaughters and creating baby quilts. She takes flowers to the cemetery, making elaborate arches in memory of loved ones.
However, for a good part of her life these things were not easy to accomplish. Penny suffered from atrial fibrillation (afib). Afib is an irregular heart beat that can lead to blood clots, which in turn can cause strokes. Blood thinners can prevent blood clots from forming, and a pacemaker, a small device that sends electronic impulses, can restore the heart’s rhythm and maintain a regular heart rate. Both work in tandem to keep Penny alive and active.
“I was 35 when I had my first fib episode, but I didn’t know what it was. I was taking my then-14-year-old son to a golf tournament. I pulled over and told him he needed to drive because I was going to pass out. He got behind the wheel and drove to the hospital. Doctors said I had a panic attack,” said Penny. “I knew it wasn’t, but I went through years of different doctors giving me different medication that made me sick.”
Afib is nothing new to Penny. Her mother had it and so did four other women in her family. Penny did not receive treatment for this condition until age 50. In 2001, to help regulate her heart, Penny received her first pacemaker. A second followed four years later and a third in 2013. She was all set to receive a fourth pacemaker in June of this year when Dr. Saumya Sharma, an associate professor of cardiac electrophysiology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and the director of Clinical Research for the Complex Arrhythmia Center at Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center, suggested they go another route.
Sharma thought Penny was the perfect candidate for a new minimally invasive procedure using a device called the Abbott Amplatzer Amulet Left Atrial Appendage Occluder, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2021, that is designed to treat patients with afib who are at risk of ischemic stroke.
“In some people with afib the left atrial appendage – a small pocket connected to the upper left chamber of the heart – can allow blood to pool and increase the likelihood of a clot formation, which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke,” Sharma said. “This device completely and immediately seals and closes off the left atrial appendage, allowing the body to heal over it, preventing clots from forming in the heart and escaping to the brain. Sharma adds that this procedure is a good option for those patients who experience side effects or have difficulty taking blood thinners.
“The standard therapy after an atrial appendage procedure of this type would be for the patient to take blood thinners for at least 45 days to avoid blood clots from forming,” Sharma said. “This new device eliminates the need for blood-thinning medications.”
UTHealth Houston was part of the national clinical trial that studied the Amplatzer cardiac device in patients at Memorial Hermann-TMC. This device gives electrophysiologists another strong and effective option to treat patients who suffer with afib, demonstrating Memorial Hermann’s commitment to advancing health and personalizing care. The device is currently available at Memorial Hermann-TMC and Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center.
On April 12, 2022, Penny became the first patient in Texas to undergo this specific procedure using a new sheath that helps the catheter adjust to the patient’s specific anatomy. It was a success. She was able to get off blood thinners right away and she can now do things she had to put off out of a fear of getting a blood clot.
“I couldn’t get my last wisdom tooth removed. I couldn’t ride my bike because if I bump, I bruise. Now I will be able to have surgery to fix my thumb that I broke when I was a kid that caused arthritis in my knuckles,” Penny said.
Penny is grateful to the team of doctors from UTHealth Houston and the nurses and staff at Memorial Hermann-TMC. She will always need a pacemaker, but she believes this new procedure has given her a new lease on life – so much so that she has plans to make baby blankets for her great-great-grandchildren someday.
“I truly believe this new procedure is going to help a lot of people,” Penny said. “I am so grateful that I no longer need to take blood thinners and I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life, which I plan to live to the fullest.”
To learn more about the Heart Center at Memorial Hermann, please visit: https://memorialhermann.org/locations/heart-and-vascular-institute-texas-medical-center