By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
When Shannon Phillips went into pacemaker clinics for checkups over the years, other patients looked at her with puzzled expressions.
“What is this little girl doing here?” their faces seemed to ask.
When Phillips was 7, she would have been there for a follow-up visit after surgery for her third pacemaker. At age 8, for her fourth.
“Then I had one at 10, and … definitely one in my teens,” said Phillips, now 41, trying to remember the dates of her 12 pacemaker surgeries. For the graphic designer from a Dallas suburb, life with a pacemaker is as normal as breathing.
“I didn’t know anything else,” she said. “And my parents didn’t treat me any differently.”
Those left wondering about the little girl may never have known that they were witnessing modern medical miracles in the treatment of heart block right before their eyes.
Phillips was born May 28, 1975, with heart block, a condition in which the heart’s electrical signals are blocked or obstructed. That causes a very irregular heartbeat. In Phillips’ case, her heart was not even working.
But she was only 2 pounds, a preemie. An ultrasound done while her mother was 34 weeks pregnant had revealed a problem, and Phillips was delivered by cesarean section.
Doctors hooked up a pacemaker outside her tiny body.
The first adult pacemaker had been implanted only 17 years earlier, and pacemaker technology at first was “very, very primitive,” explained pediatric cardiologist Robert M. Campbell, M.D., who was about to enter his residency when Phillips was born.
The majority of pacemakers had been implanted in adults, said Campbell, of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“The device manufacturers know their markets, and their markets weren’t children,” Campbell said.
He knows how difficult it would have been to perform that surgery on a premature infant.
“It’d be roughly the equivalent of putting a car battery into your abdomen,” said Campbell.
How were doctors going to get a pacemaker into such a tiny human being?
“They formed a plan to put the pacemaker in my abdomen. I still have a very large scar. They fed that wire up to my heart, and that’s where it stayed,” said Phillips.
Her parents were understandably “terrified,” Phillips said. Her lungs were not fully developed, she had fluid buildup in her skull, and her intestines were twisted.
Somehow, “once surgery was complete, every day, I got better and better,” Phillips said.
Campbell said pacemakers have gotten better and better, too, thanks in large part to continued research. Also, device manufacturers were able to incorporate pediatric cardiology research into product development.
The large batteries of the early years are now 2 to 3 inches long, Campbell said.
“Some of the most important technologies have been in miniaturization [of devices],” Campbell said.
“There has been a huge amount of technical advances,” Campbell said. “And that is great news for all of us who treat heart disease in children.”
It’s great news for Phillips – and her family. The premature baby with heart block who was not expected to live grew up to become an art director, a wife and the mother of two teenage daughters whom she loves with all her heart.