One morning in August of 2020, Connor woke up and found he couldn’t speak or move the left side of his body.
When it went away after a few minutes, the Colorado resident figured it was nothing serious. But his girlfriend insisted he go to urgent care, which sent him straight to the emergency department.
There, at age 30, Connor learned he had suffered from a stroke.
“I had no indication before that anything was wrong. I was living my life, doing fine and then one day I woke up with this medical issue,” Connor says.
Unexpected medical follow-up
Connor was admitted to the hospital so doctors could figure out what could cause a stroke in a healthy, active young man. The culprit: a patent foramen ovale — or PFO — in his heart.
A PFO is a common condition that occurs when the foramen ovale — a naturally occurring structure formed in the heart in utero — does not close as expected when newborns take their first breath and their lungs expand, says Clifford Kavinsky, MD, a structural heart disease specialist at Rush.
With a PFO, blood can travel through the opening in the heart from the right atrium to the left. If a blood clot forms in the body and passes through the PFO into the left atrium, it can then travel to the brain and cause a serious medical issue. In Connor’s case, a clot that traveled through his heart caused a stroke.
In patients who have a PFO and have experienced a stroke, specialists recommend that they receive treatment to close the opening, along with medication and lifestyle changes to prevent heart disease. A PFO in patients who have already experienced a PFO-associated stroke increases the likelihood of a second stroke, so preventing future, more severe events is essential, Kavinsky says.
The cardiologists Connor saw in Colorado suggested implanting a device in his heart to treat his PFO. He wasn’t sure, and was hoping to find a solution that didn’t require a permanent implant.
A PFO can be treated by implanting a device called an occluder, which is placed permanently in the wall of the heart to close the PFO and prevent blood from traveling through the opening, according to Kavinsky.
While implants are successfully used to treat many PFO patients, they can also be associated with device-related complications such as blood clots, infection and allergy, and in some cases can cause atrial fibrillation, Kavinsky says.
Connor decided he wanted to get a second opinion on his heart condition and began researching cardiologists who were performing a less invasive, trial treatment procedure for PFO called Noblestitch.
Connor traveled to Chicago and met with Kavinsky, who determined that he was a good candidate for Noblestitch.
More about the Noblestitch procedure
The Noblestitch procedure is currently being evaluated for use to close a PFO without inserting a permanent device in the heart. It’s performed using patented technology to stitch the PFO closed using a suture, Kavinsky explains.
Because Noblestitch is less invasive than typical heart implantation procedures, recovery time for patients can be shorter.
While still in the clinical trial phase, Noblestitch has had positive outcomes for many patients and is a promising innovation in treatment for PFO.
“This option is attractive to young patients, the presumption is that this treatment is lifelong. Once the PFO is closed, it’s closed for life,” Kavinsky says.
Be your own advocate
After the procedure, Connor was able to go home the day of his surgery, and he has not experienced any adverse symptoms since then. He was back to doing all of his favorite outdoor activities like snowboarding and hiking in just a few months.
Nearly 25% of adults have PFO, and it is present in more than half of young stroke patients, according to Kavinsky.
“This procedure is not done on anyone who has not experienced a stroke, but it is pivotal to prevent further, more severe strokes that could potentially have life-altering aftermath,” Kavinsky says.
Kavinsky noted that because this procedure is still in clinical trials, many patients find out about it through doing their own research and traveling for a second opinion.
Connor’s advice: “Be your own advocate, do your research and find a provider who you trust.”