"Does your bra really go up that high?" the TSA officer asked, running her hands along my chest. My boyfriend, Adam, and I were headed for a romantic getaway, and being held at airport security wasn't on our itinerary. "I have a pacemaker. That's a scar, not my bra," I said. "You're too young for that," she said.
While I'm not the only 26-year-old with a pacemaker, I'm the only one most security officers have seen. Of the pacemakers installed yearly, 84% are for people older than age 65. Only 6% are for those younger than 49.
I was 15 the first time I fainted. I was misdiagnosed with a fainting condition, which typically occurs after sudden drops in blood pressure. Dehydration and seeing blood are other common triggers for this type of fainting. My doctors blamed the heat; I lived in Arizona, so it made sense.
Fainting and Bradycardia
For years, I collapsed every few months. By the time I moved to New York City when I was 23 for a job at CBS News, I was frustrated. The doctors I saw only seemed to tell me to stay hydrated and eat potato chips to keep my blood pressure up. But it didn't work. I fainted in a meeting at work.
One time, my roommates found me bruised and bloodied in the shower.
A friend recommended I see her cardiologist, and within hours he sent me to an electrophysiologist, a doctor who specializes in the electrical activity of the heart. He did the same tests as my previous doctors but noticed that my heart rate was dangerously low, even when I was awake and moving around. His diagnosis was bradycardia, which technically means your resting heartbeat is less than 60 beats per minute. I was healthy; my heartbeat was just much slower than most.
First a Heart Monitor, Then a Pacemaker
My new doctor's impulse was to give me a pacemaker, but he decided to first implant a heart monitor, which reads the heart's electrical activity over a long period of time. Pacemaker installations are common, but younger patients require more surgeries over their lifetime because the batteries are replaced every seven years. Complications, such as infections, can also occur from having a pacemaker.
I had the monitor for a little more than a year when I fainted for the last time. I was at Adam's parents' house for dinner and crashed down the basement stairs and into a glass door. I don't recommend this for impressing potential in-laws. They rushed me to the ER. The monitor confirmed that my heartbeat was not just slow but was stopping for long periods. I was admitted and given a bright yellow bracelet that said, "fall risk." That bracelet summed up the last 10 years of my life. I left the hospital a few days later with a pacemaker.
It's been two years since my procedure, and I haven't fainted once. Adam and I are now engaged and planning a destination wedding. I'm probably one of the few people happy to add a little bit of extra time at airport security. I view it as a good exchange for no longer being a fall risk.