Heart Health Month: Watchman Device Reinvents Retired Air Force Vet

Managing Editor

Bernier was only the fifth patient at Mercy Heart Center to have device implanted in his heart

by Jim Boyle
Editor
Paul Bernier has had a knack for reinventing himself over the years.

This past November, however, it was a doctor who helped reinvent this 82-year-old Otsego man and retired Air Force mechanic and pilot.

Bernier’s quality of life had been on a downward spiral when his cardiologist, Dr. Jeff Chambers, told him of a technological breakthrough in the medical field called the Watchman.

Photo by Jim Boyle Paul Bernier, an 82-year-old retired Air Force veteran, enjoys sharing stories about his days in the service when he flew C-124 cargo planes. Thanks to a procedure inserting a Watchman in his heart, he’s moving about a lot more and enjoying reading about World War II.
Photo by Jim Boyle
Paul Bernier, an 82-year-old retired Air Force veteran, enjoys sharing stories about his days in the service when he flew C-124 cargo planes. Thanks to a procedure inserting a Watchman in his heart, he’s moving about a lot more and enjoying reading about World War II.

Bernier, who was on the blood thinning medicine warfarin to tame his risk of having a stroke, was considered a perfect candidate. He had fallen repeatedly in 2016 as his strength and balance waned due to a variety of health issues.

Doctors at Metropolitan Heart and Vascular Institute feared it was only a matter of time before Bernier would fall, strike his head and die from a brain bleed or some similar fate.

Bernier became the fifth person to have the Watchman installed since doctors started doing the procedure in November 2016 at the Mercy Hospital Heart Center in Coon Rapids. There have been six more since Bernier has his procedure, including two that were done on Valentine’s Day.

“It has been a blessing, really,” said Carol Bernier, Paul’s wife and caregiver.

Paul was off warfarin 45 days after the procedure. What’s more, the bruising on his arms has begun to fade. His balance has improved. He’s getting around much more, despite two bad knees.

“My quality of life has improved 100 percent,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a young kid again. I forget I’m 80-some years old.”

Carol reminds him of his age occasionally, but the couple is once again talking about boarding their 36-foot camper at the Mississippi Riverwood RV Park. A few months ago a trip to the grocery store seemed too dangerous. Carol could still go, but now she can bring her husband along or leave him home alone without the constant worry about his safety.

The Watchman is a left atrial appendage closure device. This innovative one-time procedure reduces the risk of stroke in non-valvular atrial fibrillation patients and the risk of bleeding that comes with a lifetime use of blood thinners.

Blood thinners like warfarin, or Coumadin, are used oftentimes to eliminate the risk of stroke-causing clots that can form when blood pools.

“It’s so great that new technology can help people,” Chambers said.

Paul Bernier creates quite a stir when he comes by for his visits, talking to nurses, hospital volunteers and his doctor.

There’s also a sparkle in Bernier’s eyes as he moves about his Otsego home to show off his collection of books on World War II and a model airplane that brings him back to his days in the Air Force.

As a young man in the Air Force, Bernier was a flight mechanic whose passion was flying.

As a flight mechanic, he flew planes all day and worked on them all night. The thrill of flying was always far more exhilarating than fixing the B-47s and B-52 bombers he piloted after World War II was over.

As a flight engineer he still got to fly all day, but when he landed a C-124 cargo plane, he handed off the maintenance responsibilities to a flight mechanic who would comb over its engine and address potential problems Bernier noticed in the air.

The difference in jobs was night and day. All the exhilaration of flying, without the added stress of mechanics.

This wasn’t the only time Bernier reinvented himself.

He did it after growing up in Colleraine by Grand Rapids and graduating high school in 1952. Three days after getting his high school diploma, he was sworn into the Air Force at an office in Minneapolis.

He did it again after retiring from the Air Force in 1972.

He and Carol lived in Delaware at the time and returned to their Minnesota roots in 1978. Paul became a Ford mechanic back in Grand Rapids.

When he got laid off, he went back to school to pursue a degree in industrial engineering at Bemidji State University. He lived in a dorm during the week and returned home to his wife on the weekends. He graduated magna cum laude at 50 years of age with a bachelor’s degree.

Eventually he retired from everything, and the couple got a place on Pokegama Lake.
He had open heart bypass surgery to repair six blocked coronary arteries in May 1992.
The Berniers moved close to family in Otsego about eight years ago. Paul Bernier joked that taxes or his health would drive him off the property that also entailed the responsibility of caring for 132 feet of shoreline.

Then in 2010 Bernier suffered a stroke and heart attack. He had six stints put in, rather than have open heart surgery again.

Blood thinners kept him stroke-free since then, but now he’s not worried about strokes or bleeding from blood thinners.

Bernier says he feels like a new man.