Funky Hearts have Good Ryhthm

Regardless of what you might hear, a pacemaker does not make you a better dancer. My fancy stepping hasn’t improved a bit since I got my pacemaker back in 2002. It seems that while my heart now has good rhythm, I still have two left feet.

Pacemakers really aren’t that bad. Like everything else, there is a page full of warnings about them, but a lot of it is common sense. Still, I’m over cautious.

Most pacemakers are located in the patient’s right shoulder. The leads follow the Superior Vena Cava into the Right Atrium, where two of the heart’s natural pacemaker “nodes” are located. The leads are hooked into the nodes and then whenever your heart needs a little help, the pacemaker provides a shock. Under normal circumstances, you don’t even feel it.

Of course, I have to be complicated. (I’m unique, what can I say?) Since my Superior Vena Cava was disconnected and now connects to the Pulmonary Artery, that pathway won’t work. So my pacemaker is in my lower left abdomen, and the leads come up to the center of the heart where the pacing node for the ventricles are. My ventricles don’t beat properly because of my heart failure, so in the language of the Pacer Lab, I am “100% paced”. In other words, that silver dollar sized hunk of metal is keeping me alive.

You can’t dwell on it, but you can’t really forget about it, either. The pacer lab recommends that I keep and use my cell phone only on my right side. That is simple enough. I also leave the room when someone turns on the microwave. That’s not necessary — one of the pacer techs told me that I probably shouldn’t sit on the microwave, or stand by the microwave door with my face pressed against the glass. I don’t have to leave the room, but I’m just paranoid enough to do so. As far as normal activities, you are usually told to avoid bowling and throwing a ball. I’m not sure how that applies when your pacer isn’t anywhere near your arm, but it doesn’t really matter. I never was much of a bowler or a pitcher.

I avoid metal detectors, asking instead for a hand search. The jury is still out on if a metal detector can damage a pacemaker (or actually reset it — they adjust the unit’s programming with a magnet in the pacer lab, and a metal detector generates an electromagnetic field) so I err on the side of caution. I show them my pacer card and let the agent pat me down by hand.

And while the danger of a walk through metal detector is still being debated, under no circumstances allow someone to wave a wand type metal detector over your pacemaker. The wand generates a localized and highly concentrated electromagnetic field. If they do, call your pacer lab ASAP.

Under normal circumstances, the pacer lab will check your pacemaker over the telephone about every three months. There are several ways to do it but all of them are painless and take about ten minutes. Once a year, they want you to actually visit the pacer lab for your pacer check. They probably want to actually lay eyeballs on you and see that you are doing well.

Because my pacemaker is running at full speed, the battery is good for about three years. That’s well short of the 10 to 15 year threshold we’ve come to expect, but it’s what I get. Replacing the unit requires a trip to the operating room, but usually it is same day surgery. That doesn’t always mean it is easy… one of my favorite sayings is “minor surgery is any surgery done on someone else!”

Usually you are completely under for the surgery, or like me, full of Happy Juice. And it takes about 45 minutes, from the time they roll you into the operating room until you are rolled out. The entire pacer is replaced (the battery is built into the pacer, so the whole unit comes out) and if you ask nice, they might even give you the old pacemaker!

Now there is a conversation starter! .


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