Bellingham woman first to receive clip to repair damaged heart valve


Heart clip, Mavis Arfman

Dr. Mark Resiman with patient Mavis Arfman, 87, of Bellingham at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Arfman is the first patient in Washington state, and among the first in the nation to receive the recently FDA-approved MitraClip implant in her heart. The clip helps malfunctioning heart valves close properly.


BELLINGHAM - Mavis Arfman just wanted a chance - to breathe without struggling, to shop for groceries without collapsing, to escape the couch.

The Bellingham woman got that chance earlier this month when she became the first patient in Washington state and one of the first in the country to receive a MitraClip implant in her heart, after it was approved in October by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the U.S.

The clip helped the malfunctioning mitral valve in Arfman's heart to close properly.

"It's a godsend," the 87-year-old Arfman said of the clip, which was implanted by Dr. Mark Reisman at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute in Seattle.

The mitral valve controls the flow of blood from the left atrium to the left ventricle. When it doesn't close tightly, blood flows backward into the left atrium - forcing the heart to work harder to push blood through the body.

Known as mitral regurgitation, the disease can cause shortness of breath, debilitating fatigue and worsening heart failure.

Medication can manage the symptoms but can't cure the disorder.

Arfman knows about those symptoms.

"All of a sudden I just got deathly tired," she said.

That was about a year ago, her daughter, Denise Carpenter, recalled.

Doctors would discover what Reisman described as Arfman's "very leaky" mitral valve.

But because of her age and frailty - she had other health problems - Arfman wasn't a good candidate for traditional open-heart surgery because it would have been too risky.

She isn't alone.

"No one's really treated these people," Reisman said of patients like Arfman.

"I was going to learn to live with it," Arfman said of the condition.

That meant not being able to get up from the couch and go into the kitchen for a cup of coffee without huffing and puffing, being so tired that she had to go to bed earlier and earlier, and saying goodbye to outings at Mount Baker Theatre or trips elsewhere.

And then the FDA approved the MitraClip by Abbott Vascular for patients like Arfman who can't undergo traditional surgery to fix the faulty valve.

Carpenter said she and her mom talked about getting the implant before Arfman decided to go ahead with it.

"She didn't want to sit on the couch the rest of her life. She wanted to be active," Carpenter said.

Arfman said she also wanted to make sure she felt well enough to be able to help support her daughter, who is awaiting a kidney transplant.

On Dec. 3, Arfman underwent the procedure at Swedish.

Reisman inserted the MitraClip through a catheter in the femoral vein in her leg and then guided it to the damaged valve in her heart, where the tiny clamp is used to hold together the valve's weakened flaps, which also are known as leaflets, to reduce leakage.

Reisman, who took part in the clinical study that lasted at least eight years, said the procedure went well, adding that the new technology gives frail patients like Arfman an option for getting treatment.

She was sent home from the hospital on the second day, according to Reisman.

Back in Bellingham and preparing for a family visit during Christmas, Arfman said she still felt tired and had shortness of breath. But there were signs of improvement, including being able to cook and do other things like going to the grocery store.

"At least I am breathing good. I'm up, moving around the house, going to the mailbox," Arfman said. "The idea of getting well and being better is incentive for me to try harder."


To see photos of the MitraClip and watch animation of how it works, click here.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or .

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