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Franciscan Health implants new device in racecar driver with AFib

Franciscan Health implants new device in racecar driver with AFib

In Larry Dixon’s Brownsburg workshop and office, there is a photograph of him and his father, Larry Sr., standing in a National Hot Rod Association winner’s circle. If there ever was a sign of things to come, this could have been the moment.

“I started racing because I didn’t know any better,” Larry Jr. said with smile.

That desire to race, to move forward, to face challenges head on and find solutions has served him well not only in racing but in his personal health, overcoming throat cancer and heart disease.

Growing up in southern California, Larry spent nearly as much time at the track as his father, a top fuel champion whose drag racing was a hobby. Larry started his own professional driving career at age 29. And while Larry entered the world of drag racing with a modest pedigree, he soon made his own mark by not only becoming a top fuel champion himself but also winning three world championships. In a career spanning 20 years, Larry has made 108 final-round appearances and 62 wins. He currently ranks second in the Top Fuel segment of drag racing for most wins.

He and his driving team met with success across the country, but in 2014, however, Larry had to temporarily switch “teams” when he was diagnosed with throat cancer and received care at an Indianapolis hospital. During his care, physicians discovered that Larry also had atrial fibrillation (AFib), or an irregular heartbeat. Untreated, the condition could increase his risk of having a stroke. While Larry had not experienced any symptoms of AFib, he was not completely surprised by the news. Both his father and grandmother also had AFib.

To correct Larry’s heart rhythm, a cardiologist performed an electrical cardioversion, an outpatient procedure where electrodes placed on the patient’s chest and back deliver an electrical current to restore a normal rhythm.

This was successful, but Larry’s AFib returned a few years later, which frequently happens to patients. His second treatment in 2021 was a cardiac ablation, a procedure that targets the specific areas of the heart that are “misfiring” and neutralize them. The specialist uses a catheter to deliver a device that scars the targeted tissue with laser or freezing.

After each procedure, Larry’s cardiologists recommended that he start taking prescription blood thinners. This would reduce the chance of blood clots forming in his heart if he experienced AFib in the future.

Larry Dixon, Jr. was implanted with the WATCHMAN at Franciscan Health last summer. (Submitted photo)

But Larry hesitated. If taking any kind of medication, especially blood thinners, could impact racing performance, he wanted to avoid that. While blood thinners are effective, they do have side effects, including the possibility of excessive bleeding if a person is injured. For some patients, anticoagulant medications can cause light-headedness or sensitivity to heat, things better avoided when spending time in and around high-speed vehicles.

“I look at my body as a car in that I want to be able to correct a problem and carry on,” said Larry. “I thought that a blood thinner wasn’t correcting a problem but acting as a band-aid for one.”

That’s when his cardiologist, then based in California, referred him to Franciscan Health and Indiana Heart Physicians whose cardiologists were implanting a new device, the WATCHMANTM, for patients with AFib. The device is placed via a catheter in the heart’s left atrial appendage (LAA), a space where blood clots tend to form. The implant fills the space to reduce a patient’s risk of forming blood clots. The WATCHMAN also usually eliminates the need for a patient with AFib to take blood-thinning medications.

“The results achieved with the WATCHMAN are truly phenomenal,” said Saeed Shaikh, MD, interventional cardiologist with Indiana Heart Physicians who just implanted his 200th WATCHMAN this spring, the most of any physician in Indiana. “The device blocks the LAA and, over time, the patient’s own tissue covers it. And complications are extremely low.

“What’s more,” he added, “most patients with the device can safely go off oral anticoagulants within two months. Their risk of stroke is dramatically reduced – the same as if they never stopped taking anticoagulants.”

Larry, who had the device implanted by Dr. Shaikh in the summer of 2021, is now more than 300 Franciscan Health patients to have the WATCHMAN implant. He stayed in the hospital overnight and was back in his shop later that week with a lowered risk of stroke and a higher peace of mind.

“Working on cars, you just get beat up,” he said, referring to the healing gouges on his fingers left from cuts. “The WATCHMAN made all the sense in the world to me for safety and quality of life.”

Franciscan Health Indianapolis is participating in a clinical trial testing a device that reduces the risk of stroke for atrial fibrillation (AFib) patients compared to the use of blood thinners. The hospital was the first location in Indiana and is one of 150 sites participating globally. The five-year trial will include 3,000 patients.

For more information, click here or call (317) 893-1925.

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