When you think about a pacemaker implantation surgery, what comes to mind? Do you have a sense of who gets pacemakers and why? Perhaps you conjure an image of your grandparent who got a pacemaker toward the end of their life. Maybe you recall feeling the small device just under the skin on your grandfather’s chest. Or maybe you have no knowledge or personal connection with pacemaker implantation at all. 

No matter how you relate to the device, it’s commonly known to be one of those medical inventions that transformed cardiac care and has prolonged many people’s lives. Before we dive into the history and implications of the pacemaker let’s begin by discovering exactly what it does. At the most basic level, a pacemaker is a device that is implanted in a patient’s chest to help monitor their heartbeat. Some patients’ hearts beat to slow, others too fast, and some beat irregularly. The pacemaker monitors heart rate and is prepared to provide an electrical impulse should the heart need assistance in beating normally.

What to Expect

During the pacemaker implantation surgery patients are generally awake but sedated. Incisions are made in the patient’s chest and small wires are fed through a vein into the heart. Once inside the heart, one end of the wire is attached to the heart muscle while the other end is attached to the pacemaker device. The device itself is small enough to fit easily into the palm of your hand and it’s secured underneath the skin. We’ll get into the history of pacemaker implantation shortly, but it’s safe to say that these tiny devices have evolved over the years. Today’s pacemakers can be monitored remotely including information about your ongoing heart rate and the battery length of the device.

Where It Originated

The pacemaker was the invention of John Hopps, a biomedical engineer from Canada. The first pacemaker prototype was built from the parts of a small radio and was created to solve a complex issue that kept arising in the pioneering science of open-heart surgery. After several years of trial, the very first pacemaker implantation took place in the year 1958. The subject of the pacemaker implantation surgery was a 43-year-old man, and the first pacemaker failed very shortly after the surgery. And while it took 26 pacemakers to get him there, the patient survived and the device(s) prolonged his life to the age of 88 years old. The problem with the first pacemakers was the lack of battery life. In the late 1960s with the invention of the lithium battery, pacemaker implantation became a better option for cardiac patients.

The first pacemakers were simple and could only maintain a single rhythm regardless of what the patient’s heart was doing. It wasn’t until much later that pacemakers were created with the ability to sense the patient’s own heart rate and beat along with it instead of requiring the patient’s heart to adjust to the device. Early pacemakers were only activated when the patient’s heart was no longer beating on its own.

Another big evolution in pacemaker implantation is the way in which it was attached to the heart. In the first iterations of the device, the electrical leads were only activating the lower chamber of a patient’s heart, but that didn’t account for patients whose heart rate issues occurred in the upper chambers of the heart. From there, pacemaker implantations allowed cardiologists to pace both the upper and lower chambers of the heart. This enables the pacemaker to operate more closely to how the patient’s actual heart is meant to function.

What We Know Today

Today, as pacemaker implantation technology continues to evolve, the devices are able to sense and record with some clarity how a person’s heart is beating. That information can then be transmitted to the patient’s physician so their heart health can be more easily monitored and the device adjusted to account for any change. The devices are much smaller than John Hopps’ original invention, and they’re probably even smaller than the device you may remember your grandparents wearing during your childhood. In fact, pacemaker implantation surgery isn’t just a procedure meant for the elderly.

The primary reasons people undergo pacemaker implantation are bradycardia and heart block. Bradycardia and heart block are both conditions that occur in patients causing them to have a slower than normal heart rate. While this often occurs in older patients whose hearts are tired, there are plenty of other reasons why a young person might need pacemaker implantation. For example, congenital heart defects or even muscular dystrophy can lead to such cardiac weaknesses.

The history of pacemakers is interesting, but the ability of such a small device to return quality of life to millions of people around the world is easily its crowning achievement. We hope that if you have concerns about your own heart health you’ll feel comfortable and confident to ask for professional help. These days, resources abound for patients who are ready to live a healthier and happier life. Contact our office today to learn more about pacemaker implantation.