A Small Miracle Box Called a Pacemaker

Cardiac pacemakers were first used in BC when open heart surgery started at VGH in 1958, and in 1962, James MacLean was the first patient to go home from the hospital with a portable model of what the newspaper called “a small miracle box called the pace-maker”. MacLean’s external model (worth $400) was powered by a 10-volt battery which lasted five weeks. As the battery slowly wore down, he adjusted a small dial on the top of the machine to keep the beat steady. The newspaper added, “At night he simply puts the miracle box at the head of the bed and goes to sleep with no worries.” Every five weeks, he got a new battery and repeated the cycle.

Pacemakers were still considered almost miraculous, as is evident in the following article, published in 1966 in The Sun.

FLOWN HERE
Operation Uses Heart Pacemaker

NEW WESTMINSTER – A special electronic unit will be used in a heart operation here Wednesday – thanks to a long-distance telephone, a police escort and a transatlantic flight.

The rush to bring a “cardiac pacemaker” to the Royal Columbian Hospital began Saturday with a call to Birmingham, England. The call was made by heart specialist Dr. Ludovic Mirabel who asked the Joseph Lucas Company to send one of their $225 pacemakers on the first plane to Vancouver. A police escort helped hurry the transportation of the unit to London Airport in time to catch an Air Canada DC-8 jet, due to arrive in Vancouver at 5:45 pm today.

The pacemaker will be used Wednesday for an operation on Charles Drinkall who lives in North Surrey. Drinkall, 74, is in the intensive care unit of the hospital, where a temporary pacemaker is being used on his heart. His daughter said today he had been ill with a heart complaint for the last 18 months. She said he suffered from heart convulsions and a week ago the hospital called the family to tell them he might not last the day.

Dr. Mirabel said the Birmingham unit is used under supervision of a heart specialist and a heart surgeon. He said it is used when a heart stops contracting or contracts too slowly. “This leads to convulsions and death,” he said. He said the unit is introduced by a vein into the heart and delivers electrical impulses which make the heart contract regularly. “Then the patient takes it home with him!”, he said.

Charles Drinkall died at age 79 in April of 1969 three years almost to the day, after this surgery.

Before implantable pacemakers were developed that contained batteries, attempts were made to power them from outside the chest. This induction-type cardiac pacemaker has a power unit and two induction coils. The battery and the coil are carried by the patient. It was made by Joseph Lucas of Birmingham, an engineering company with Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The rate of electrical output was increased or decreased using a simple adjustable switch.
Source: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display.aspx?id=92791

One of the current projects of the RCH Foundation is to raise funds for a new Multipurpose Interventional Suite that will be used for life-saving clinical services including cardiac care, medical imaging, neurosurgical diagnosis and treatment of aneurysms and stroke. In its first year alone, the suite will enable RCH to implant 650 more pacemakers, provide more than 4,800 cardiac catheterizations, and implant 100 internal cardiac defibrillators each year. The cardiologists who, between 1958 and 1962 performed a total of eight pacemaker implantations, would have found it hard to believe that those numbers would ever be possible.

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