It Happened to Me: I Got a Pacemaker at 25

I sometimes set off the security systems at the Gap and Barnes and Noble. I’ve also held up the security line at many concert venues around the tri-state-area. And please don’t pick me up in your Prius, as the ignition system has been theorized to interrupt pacemakers.

Aug 10, 2011 at 3:02pm | Leave a comment

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“Does your bra really go up that high?” asked the TSA officer running the back of her hands along my chest. My boyfriend, Adam, and I were leaving for a romantic weekend getaway to Austin, Texas, via JFK and being held at airport security was not on our itinerary.

“I told you, I have a pacemaker, that’s a scar, not my bra,” I said.

“You’re too young to have a pacemaker,” the officer said as she continued her pat down.

“Look,” I said, as I pulled down my shirt just enough for her to see a raised scar the size of pinky a few inches below my collar bone. I’ve learned that actually seeing the bump on my chest saves more time than explaining it.

I am not lying; I really do have a pacemaker. While I’m not the only person under 65 with a pacemaker, it is rare, and to most security officers, I’m the only one they’ve ever seen. Out of the total pacemakers installed every year, 2 percent of patients are under 22, 4 percent are 22-49, 10 percent are 50-65 and 84 percent are 65 and older.

Airport security is not the only oddity that comes with being a twentysomething with a pacemaker. I sometimes set off the security systems at the Gap, Barnes and Noble, and the occasional Best Buy. I explain to the sales person that I have a pacemaker, and am not stealing something. If I wasn’t such a goody two shoes this could be a free pass to a new life of shoplifting.

I’ve also held up the security line at many concert venues around the tri-state-area. I cannot be “wanded” and it’s near impossible to explain why to the security guards manning the lines before a Bon Jovi concert. I also have some limitations on physical activities. I’ve been warned to not run with my cell phone in my sports bra (a weird habit I used to have), as it’s believed that cell phones can be problematic when close to the device, although it’s not 100 percent confirmed. I must avoid contact sports; luckily I’m not an avid football player.

My sister, who’s moved four times in the past year, says that the pacemaker is my get-out-of-jail-free card from helping friends to switch apartments. I also need to disclose the pacemaker to any gym or training program. When I attempted to sign up for the Brooklyn Bridge Bootcamp, my doctor’s secretary, who often deals with only older patients, did not grasp the concept. Also, please don’t pick me up in your Prius, as the ignition system has been theorized to interrupt pacemakers.

A little over a year ago, I had the device implanted after a decade of unexplained fainting. The first time I hit the deck, I was 15 and working as student athletic trainer at my Mesa, Arizona high school. After one October practice, I woke up on the asphalt behind the stadium missing a tooth, patches of hair, and had no clue what was going on. Bewildered, the coach called my mom and she promptly took me home to do what any Jewish mother would do, fed me THEN took me to a doctor. They thought it was just from the heat, and living in Arizona, it made sense.

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Cut to a month later, me face planted on the kitchen table while my family looked on. Fainting while seated is unusual, and prompted my parents, who are schooled in homeopathy and natural options, to shun the vitamins and immediately bring me to the doctors. Nobody knew why it was happening. The general diagnosis was Vasovagal Synocope -- aka the common faint.

Watching someone give blood, or being dehydrated are common triggers for the Vasovagal response (fainting) in other people. For me, one minute I’d be talking, the next I’d be down for the count. For 10 years, I fainted every couple of months. No one knew how to control it. I was told to stay hydrated, eat plenty of salt, and carry potato chips in my bag to keep my blood pressure up.

The list of embarrassing fainting moments grew: hitting the deck during a meeting at my first job in Washington DC, while visiting my grandma in the recovery room after her hip replacement. The worst was having my roommates find me bruised and bloodied after I fainted alone in the shower.

I had enough, and went to a new doctor. Dr. Aizer understood that I couldn’t continually eat potato chips, cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t hobble off in front of the A train. He found out that I had Bradycardia – My heart is perfectly healthy, it just beats at its own speed, much slower than most. 

They tried the two medication options available, a beta blocker, and an SSRI, to keep me upright -- but I was still fainting. Finally, he suggested an implanted heart monitor to see what was really happening during an episode. He thought I might need a pacemaker, but didn’t want to put a device in someone so young, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Pacemaker installation is an easy procedure, yet because the batteries must be replaced every five to seven years, the risks are different for someone my age. The scar tissue from the repeated replacement procedures builds up and can cause problems later on in life -- the fewer replacements, the fewer issues. Positively, the pacemaker would keep my heart from dipping into the dangerously low beat-per-minute levels -- which was hypothesized to be the cause of my fainting. The device monitors heart rates and when needed sends electrical impulses if it is too slow.

Last winter, my boyfriend Adam and I were walking out from brunch at Fred’s on the Upper West Side in New York City, when I stopped and burped. I looked at him, and he knew something was wrong, before I could hit the ground, he caught me, but I was out for awhile. He took me to the hospital. Everything seemed fine, and my doctor cleared me to go home, and come in two days to discuss my options. A day later, the night before my follow-up, we were having dinner at Adam’s parents’ house. I got up to go to the basement and crashed down a flight of stairs and into a glass paneled door. This was not a recommend way to impressing potential in-laws.

Aside from a bruised behind, and a bruised ego, I was fine, but enough was enough, and I was rushed to the emergency room. The cardiac monitor confirmed that my heart was stopping for long periods of time. I had no choice. I needed the procedure, right then and there. I was transferred from the ER and admitted to the NYU Hospital’s cardiac floor, and was given a bright yellow wrist band that said “Fall Risk” in bold black lettering. The bracelet summed up my last 10 years.

It’s been a year since my procedure, and I haven’t fainted since that bracelet came off. While I get nauseous often, the pacemaker is just a nuisance. The Heart Rhythm society describes a “pacer” as being about the size of two to three silver dollars stacked, and less than an ounce -- so I never feel it. I can use a microwave without any trouble, yet I can’t have an MRI and this device is the only non-natural item that must be removed when a person is cremated.

Luckily, because of my pacemaker it will be years before I have to think about that.