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A lacemaker with a pacemaker

Within half-an-hour of being fitted with a pacemaker, Jean felt like a transformed bionic woman. This is her experience of the surgery, from beginning to end, in her own words.

I am back home complete with my magic little device. A sort of bionic woman? I must have told everyone I’ve met that within less than half-an-hour of it being sewn inside me, the pacemaker had transformed me!

I was told my heart was registering 30 beats per minute – now it is 80. I’m told I have to restrict movement of my left arm until the little hooks on the leads settle into my heart – like tender baby plants going from the protection of the shade-house into the garden.

Now, where do I start to share my adventure with you? Of course, we’d looked up ‘pacemakers’ on the Net. It all seemed to match the leaflets and a little book from the hospital. It’s possibly true that my condition should have been obvious a few years ago, but it’s fruitless going down that path. A waste of energy to fret about what should have been. Suffice to say I am truly amazed at the difference in how I now feel.

There were plenty of warnings before the operation (which I had done in Nelson). The leaflet mentioned a cell phone. But when I asked one of the male nurses about it before the operation, he urged me not to worry about having my phone no more than six inches from my pacemaker because whilst I was in theatre they would transplant my ears to the top of my head!

Also I was told, and this is true, that if I’m cremated the pacemaker has to be removed because it could possibly blow up the crematorium. I am not going to worry about that! But it reminds me of my sister who dropped her nitro-glycerine puffer down the loo. She feared it would explode and destroy the area around her house.

The journey from Wairau to Nelson

But back to Wednesday when I left Wairau Hospital by ambulance at 8am for my appointment at 11am in Nelson Hospital, to be fitted with a pacemaker. A nice young lass travelled with me. It was her day off so a special tick to her for being with me. Another older woman, equally as cheery and pleasant, was driving. The plan was that the Blenheim Ambulance would take me to Pelorus Bridge and then a St John’s one would take me the rest of the way.

I slept part of the way and woke up just as we were turning off the road at Pelorus Bridge. No ambulance waiting for us and radio communication didn’t work. No one around to see the nurse fishing down my front to release me from my blood pressure leads so that I – and both of them – could have a comfort stop.

The ambulance was backed close up to the bush-surrounded entrance. Strange to be toddling up the path in my slippers, hospital gown and long dressing gown...

Back in the ambulance and reconnected with the machinery, we chatted and sorted out the world! Eventually contact was made. The St John crew had had an emergency so we now went on to meet them at Rai Valley. Just before we got there they passed us. After a bit of backing about, we met up and I was transferred. I said I was able to walk the transfer, but I did a bit of a weavy track!

I’d had constant blood pressure checks in the first ambulance, again at the changeover and on the way to Nelson. I’d been told that they do fly the elderly and fragile over. Well, I was certainly frail and the inch of grey hair which had leaked through my overdue dyeing appointment definitely declared that I was elderly!

Unlike our previous visits to Nelson Hospital for tests, this time there was no trouble at all with parking. We backed right up and through the big Emergency doors. The ambulance’s trolley-bed, with me on it, slid out on its wheels and a smiling team welcomed me.

‘The best room in the house’

My leur was quickly changed (different systems from Wairau) and I was fitted with a new identity bracelet (good idea to keep this as it will identify you and your history, a bit like a microchip in a pet!). After a “1,2,3” I was lifted from my little bed to a proper one. After another ECG I was wheeled into a lift, up two floors and into a ward where there were five others.

“The best room in the house,” the cheery orderly told me as he steered my bed alongside the window. The view was staggering, through what we used to call “picture windows” down into the valley and the surrounding hills. A house site there would cost a few bob.

I smiled when the orderly expressed concern as I got off the bed, not wearing my slippers, for he warned me “not to slip in your sockies”.

Suddenly the surgeon was sitting on my bed telling me about all the things that could go wrong once he fits my pacemaker. They had to do this apparently before I could sign the form for him to go ahead.

The operation was to be done under local anaesthetic but I was given a couple of Valium tablets too. I was a little on the way to fairyland before being wheeled away on my bed to where it would all happen. I gave a nurse my glasses. I said I didn’t want to see all the surrounding twaddle. With the familiar “1,2,3” I was put onto the table.

A lovely nurse assured me that she’d be with me all the way. I said I could fall asleep. She told me that patients often did! First of all, she said I’d have to wear a funny hat like they all had. And then they’d swathe my head in a towel as if I’d just washed my hair. She explained what was happening all the time in language that I could understand. She held my hand as they prepared the site.

A choice of music during surgery

She asked what sort of music I wanted. I said something classical. An unseen member of the team moaned and said it would be funereal! She’d prefer some country and western! I said it was important that the surgeon didn’t object to my choice – I didn’t want him doing his job with clenched teeth!

There was a lot of “doctor talk” plus laughter and general chat in which I joined. If the door had been ajar you’d never have guessed what was going on inside. The news at this time – not that it was cause for merriment – was of the death of an Everest climber and the frost-bite suffered by double-amputee Mark Inglis.

My special nurse, still holding my hand, said the first locals were now going in. Not as bad as the dentist but the Valium would have helped. As the surgeon began the initial incision the music changed to Edgar’s Chanson du Matin, exactly at that particularly lovely ascending phrase which I think is like the path of a soul going to Paradise. I told my nurse that if I cried, it wasn’t with pain but emotion. It seemed like a miracle that of all the passages in all the tunes that this is what was played just at that moment. With a tissue, the nurse gently mopped away my tears.

Everything seemed linked to computers, x-rays and such. Instructions from the surgeon to whoever was behind the scenes were instructions such as “up to the right, down slowly a bit” as the wires and leads were fixed in place. The first went in alright, but my veins are so tiddly he had to go in on a different tack. He had explained this might happen when he spoke to me earlier. He said that everything was going well.

Then it was all over! I was covered with such a comforting warm blanket, they said it was heated in the pie warmer! Another “1,2,3” and I was put back on my bed and wheeled back into the ward.

On the way “my” nurse was telling the two young nurses who were with us and who’d watched the procedure that Karen, the technician (she’d been behind the scenes) was “top of the tree” in pacemakers. Maybe she was the one who didn’t like my choice in music!

After an x-ray to see if the wires hadn’t wandered, the technician came in and sat by my bed to do a check on a portable computer-thing. She reported that all was fine. I told her about my special music and the timing of its playing. She said this sort of thing happened a lot. “Accept it, don’t question it.” Good advice. The whole procedure took about an hour but it seemed like 10 minutes since I’d left the ward.

‘Truly amazing’ transformation

I put a collect call through to my husband, Brian, in Picton as a nurse brought me a sandwich and some tea, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was feeling very hungry for I’d had nothing to eat since that very early breakfast at Wairau. I told Brian that I felt like a new (bionic) woman! I told him that my heartbeat was 30. Now it was 80! It was all quite amazing. Truly amazing! A humbling experience to have all these people look after with so much TLC.

It wasn’t a very good night as the old lady in the next bed had a vasovagal (posh word for a faint – been there!) in the loo. I could see several pairs of feet under the bottom of the curtains which divided our beds and it was a while before she settled. If she coughed I woke and wondered if I should ring my bell for her.

With my bird’s eye view by the window I could see in the darkness the whole of the valley. There were thousands of lights, the road in and out of Nelson and the traffic. Bright lights of vehicles coming and the red tails of those leaving. Although it was May, the night was warm. The next morning I discovered that the big window had been open all night.

When I went to the loo the next day, I got the usual fright at seeing the sad-looking soul in the full-length mirror by the door. Yes it was me. I had a look at my operation through its transparent dressing with its buttonhole-like black stitches, which will dissolve. I don’t normally swear, but this was not a normal situation. I involuntarily muttered “bloody hell”.

Then back to Wairau

At 6.30am, a kind nurse brought me an early breakfast. At 10.30am Karen was scheduled to take a pacemaker clinic at Wairau. She was to take me back there to be discharged, leaving at 8am. She rightly insisted I was to be in the foyer on time and to bring a couple of blankets to keep me warm in the hospital van.

I was most mindful of not upsetting Karen and being late for our take-off, so at 7.55am I walked to the nurses’ station with my pillow (rule no.1 on going into hospital – take your pillow from home, better than Teddy or a security blanket) along with my bag of bits and pieces. I couldn’t have done this walk the day before! A nurse came with a wheelchair and Karen was waiting for us in the foyer. It was 8.01am.

The van was red and very like the little red vanette we used to have – though a bit longer. Obviously it was used for things other than people as there were no seats in the back. Snug under my blankets and with my pillow tucked behind me – much more comfortable than the ambulance – we set off.

When we arrived at the hospital reception, Karen put me in a wheelchair. I discovered that I should have gone to Ward 3. Although Karen had her pacemaker clinic to get to, she would not leave me until she knew an orderly was on the way to transfer me.

We may meet again when I have my first check at Wairau. What a splendid woman. A privilege and pleasure to have met her and to have had her on that team that cared for me. I will not forget her.

After a chat with a doctor and a few discharge details to complete, I said goodbye to some of the nurses and staff who were in the little patients’ lounge. Brian pushed me to the exit doors where he left me to get our vehicle and take me home.


And now

It has certainly been a few days to remember. I met some very special people. The district nurse came today. A lovely Scottish lass who is the sister of one of the nurses at the Picton Health Centre, who often does my monthly blood test. Brian has constructed a unique contraption out of a Council plastic rubbish bag so I can have a shower. I put it on to show the nurse. It made her laugh, but she said it was a good idea.

It did work and kept me dry where it mattered, but under it was like being in a hurricane – the sound of the water was so loud.

Nelson Hospital phoned to say they had some tablets I’d left there and which I was to take “for life” to protect my thinned bones (how grim that sounds). Although I told the lass who phoned me that I had a good supply, they arrived by Courier. Another example of good caring.

The girls from Lace have been terrific – visiting and phoning. All being well, I will join them for a while on Monday as we are to meet at Picton.

Oh yes, when chatting with Karen on the way back from Nelson, I told her I made lace. She said I was now “a lacemaker with a pacemaker!” I wish I’d thought of that one!


Written in June 2006

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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1 Comment

  • Lyne 21 April 2021

    Hi Jean,
    Thank you for posting your experience about getting a pacemaker. Having read your story I feel be less anguish about the procedure.
    That is a big help as my appointment for the procedure is in May
    Hope you are fit and well.
    All the best