"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 had my first heart attack 26 years ago, when I was 52. I was very active
then, sometimes jogging and often walking long distances. But I was also on the
congressional staff in Washington, and the day leading up to the attack was
even more hectic than usual. My boss was introducing major legislation, and I
had crafted an important floor speech. I didn’t have time for regular meals and
ate a huge cheeseburger for dinner, then smoked three or four cigarettes.
It happened about 3 in the morning...
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.