By Dr. Margaret Strieper, D.O., Pediatric Cardiologist
For many, the thought of a pacemaker recipient brings to mind someone who is older, someone who, after living most of a life, has a heart that is failing him or her. But in truth, the number of pediatric pacemakers implanted grows each year – giving children the chance to live normal, active lives. That’s exactly what happened to one of our patients named Patrick.
As an infant, Patrick was a calm and quiet baby. Prone to sleeping a lot, it became more and more difficult to wake him up. His mother took him to Children’s, where he was diagnosed with a heart block, a breakdown in the communication of the heart’s electrical system. Until he was 10 years old, Patrick lived like any other child. But one day, he fainted at school – a signal it was time to get a pacemaker.
As in Patrick’s case, the most common use of a pacemaker is to regulate the heart rhythm. The majority of cases are due to the heartbeat being too slow, called bradycardia. In fewer cases, we can use pacemakers to slow down a too-fast heartbeat, called tachycardia.
The pacemaker itself is made up of two parts: the battery-powered generator and two wires, called leads. Placed just under the skin, the generator sends an electrical current (that the patient cannot feel) down the leads and into the heart to stimulate a heartbeat.
Implantation can occur one of two ways:
- If your child is scheduled for open-heart surgery for another condition, the pacemaker will be put in at that time.
- If the pacemaker is the only procedure occurring, then it’s a far simpler, usually resulting in only one night in the hospital.
These devices usually last around six to nine years, depending on the amount of use, and require little maintenance. Routine follow up is important in the pacemaker clinic to ensure the battery and leads are continuing to work well. At Children’s, the pacemakers are monitored remotely every 2 months, and every six months, patients will come in for an in-clinic visit.
The benefits are often life changing. Most children will begin to feel better almost immediately, and go on to lead normal lives. Regular activity is encouraged, and only a handful of activities should be avoided – mainly contact sports like football or boxing. For Patrick, now 12, life with his four brothers remains as busy and rambunctious as ever.