Open-heart surgery is no longer the only option for Iowans with an irregular heartbeat, or atrial fibrillation.

A hospital in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area is the first in either state to offer a new alternative procedure.

Cardiologist Dr. John Scherschel says the surgery corrects irregular heartbeat.

“Atrial fibrillation is a huge problem and it becomes more common as people age,” Dr. Scherschel says. “The stroke risk goes up considerably, it’s five-fold higher in patients with atrial fibrillation than those without.”

The procedure, called LARIAT, involves two small incisions to insert a catheter into the heart. It takes about an hour.

“Most patients will be able to go home the next day or the day after that, it’s at longest a two-day hospitalization,” Scherschel says. “With open heart surgery, it can be several days to weeks with recovery requiring weeks to months, depending on the kind of procedure.”

Scherschel believes the technique will become standard treatment eventually, but for now, the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha is among only a few hospitals in the nation that are using it.

“When I saw this technique described in the scientific literature back in 2009, I said we need to be doing that because that’s the right way to do this,” he says.

Marc Leger, of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, recently had the procedure done in Omaha and says he constantly lived with the threat of stroke.

“Being in my early 60s, I’m glad I got that procedure done now and it’s something I’m going to hopefully live into my 90s and 100s with that,” Leger says, laughing.

LARIAT was recommended for Leger as it’s minimally-invasive and blocks stroke-causing blood clots from traveling to the brain. He was able to leave the hospital in a few days with just a Band-Aid covering his tiny incision.