Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pacemaker -- I'm me again

Coming up on 67 I've been slowing down and just feeling older. Occasionally my blood pressure was in the 100/50 range which on the surface is very desirable. One morning I was feeling very light headed and when I checked my blood pressure it was too low to register on my BP machine. Time for a trip to the Emergency Room at the Fresno VA. Their machines wouldn't register my BP either -- crash cart time. The doctor said I had blocking in my heart that caused me to miss beats. After a number of tests and a shot of Atropine to get my heart going it was determined that I needed a Pacemaker. The Fresno VA doesn't perform pacemaker surgery so they sent me by ambulance to the Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital where Dr. Thampi John performed the surgery. What a beautiful hospital -- all private rooms and in some ways more like a fine hotel. The food was definitely a cut above the normal hospital fare.

The thought of surgery always gives us pause. But after my pacemaker was implanted under my left shoulder blade I found the process much less menacing than I'd imagined. First, with a local anesthetic you're awake during the procedure. They tape a tent on your chest to maintain a sterile field. You won't be seeing what's going on -- who'd want to anyway. There is no pain. They painted my left chest area with a blue antiseptic which basically has to wear off. I look a little like I'm morphing into a Blue Smurf but only with my shirt off -- it will pass.

Your hospital stay could be as short as one night. There is some pain in the area of the implant. They gave me Darvocet a narcotic mixed with Acetaminophen for moderate pain. At home I substituted brandy as my pain killer of choice. They put my left arm in a sling for a week and I needed to keep the area dry for that same period -- missed those showers. For the long term you'll need to visit your Cardiologist every three to six months so they can check the pacemaker operation and the battery level. They lay a device over the pacemaker for a wireless connection to take readings and if required adjust the device. The battery should last for five to ten years depending on how often the pacemaker stimulates the heart to beat. My pacemaker only stimulates the heart if it misses beats. When it's time to change the battery they will replace the entire pacemaker but still use the wire that was routed through a vein into your heart during the initial surgery. I assume the battery replacement experience will be similar to having the pacemaker implanted in the first place.

You may occasionally see signs telling those with pacemakers to take some specific action. Household appliances like microwaves don't effect the pacemaker but some industrial equipment might. The booklet that came with my pacemaker said I shouldn't be under the hood of a running car. I asked about metal detectors in airports. You'll get a card to prove you have a pacemaker which will set off alarms at airports. Going through the metal detector will lock my Medtronic pacemaker into 85 beats/minute for a short time. I wouldn't even notice it changed. Other brands may be different. There are a number of reputable manufacturers of these devices.

Now for the best part. I don't feel like an old man anymore. The message is clear to me. Getting a pacemaker isn't such a scary thing and the rewards can be huge. I'm not back to my normal -- I'm better than that.

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