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Healthwatch 16: Leadless Pacemaker

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SCRANTON -- Sometimes a heartbeat can be too fast, too slow, or irregular. Doctors often use pacemakers to regulate someone's heartbeat.

One man from Lackawanna County has a new type of pacemaker in his heart.

Nick Stelmak, 84, from Scranton, remembers the day earlier this year when he passed out behind the wheel with his college-age grandson in the car.

"I was backing out of the driveway, next thing I knew, he was waking me up," Nick recalled.

Nick had fainted and it turns out he needed a pacemaker which doctors inserted in April.

"That got infected after so many weeks. They put a second one in. That one got infected!"

His daughter Maria Svetovich says neither of those infections was easy to fight.

"He did a six-week course of IV antibiotics, so that was tough," she said. "It was scary. It was very, very scary. He was sick."

Reactions like this to pacemakers aren't common, according to Dr. Wilson Young. a cardiac electrophysiologist at Geisinger Cardiology in Scranton.

But Nick's age, combined with diabetes and poor circulation, make it a risk.

"He does have a propensity for infection. He has diabetes. he requires insulin, so healing isn't as robust in a man like him," Dr. Young said. "Thankfully, we had this new device, which is the leadless pacemaker."

A traditional pacemaker is bigger and has two wires that run from it to the heart. The leadless pacemaker is much smaller and is put into the heart, as opposed to onto it.

Dr. Young says because tissue eventually grows around it, the risk of infection is lower. It also means that pacemaker won't be removed.

"There are instances where you can put another one in, but these are rare and you wouldn't take out the old one, you'd put another one in the heart," Dr. Young explained.

But Nick is hoping another one won't be necessary this time.

Dr. Young says the leadless pacemaker's battery lasts about as long as a traditional pacemaker. It is typically meant only for patients in their 80s and 90s.

Talk to your own doctor if you'd like more information.