EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final story in a weekly series focusing on cardiovascular health published in February, American Heart Month.
WARREN — It was a Friday afternoon when Barbara Busko began to feel lightheaded and couldn’t quite catch her breath.
“I thought what the heck is this?” said Busko, 87, of Warren.
She checked her blood pressure. The BP reading looked fine. But her heart rate had dropped into the 30s. Busko said she waited and tried again — twice. Both times, she got the same reading: her heart was beating some 30 times per minute.
From checking her blood pressure at home daily, Busko knew that normal for her was 71 to 80 beats per minute. Medical personnel say they get concerned when a person’s heart rate drops below 50 beats per minute.
Busko said she called her primary care physician, Dr. Dan Olson in Bazetta, who had her come in that day, Dec. 10. An EKG in his office confirmed the low heart rate and a ventricular blockage. Dr. Olson scheduled Busko to see a cardiologist that Monday, Dec. 13. Almost as quickly as it was made, that appointment was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the doctor’s office.
“Dr. Olson said, ‘We can’t wait,’” Busko said. “He got me in to see cardiologist Dr. Shyam Bhakta on Wednesday, Dec. 15. He (Bhakta) took his time and explained everything to me. He said I really can’t wait and scheduled me for a pacemaker.”
But the three doctors who implant pacemakers were booked through April.
Busko said said it was about 2 p.m. that Wednesday when Bhatka sent her home with the promise that he’d work on it. Two hours later, he called to let Busko know she was scheduled for pacemaker surgery on Friday morning — one week after she first called a doctor — with Dr. Glen Miske, an electrophysiologist at Trumbull Regional Medical Center.
ELECTRICAL VS. PLUMBING
“The pacemaker is designed to mimic the heart’s natural rhythm when there are disturbances in the normal rhythm,” Missie Herman, director of cardiothoracic and vascular services at Trumbull Regional, said.
When discussing cardiac issues, people tend to think about heart attacks, which generally are rooted in the “plumbing” portion of the cardiovascular system, Herman said. Cardiologists are the plumbers. They look for blockages of the coronary arteries. Treatment options include opening up the arteries with stents or rerouting the blood flow with bypass surgeries.
Electrophysiologists are the electricians, Herman said. Their concern is the electrical impulses of the cardiological system that control heartbeats and rhythms. The electrophysiologist is trained to diagnose and treat arrhythmias — irregular heartbeats.
Busko’s heart skipped beats, Herman said. Now, whenever her heart slows too much or pauses, Busko’s pacemaker sends an electrical impulse to keep the cardiovascular system on track.
The danger of a slow or irregular heartbeat is that not enough blood and oxygen flows through the brain and body to keep a person from dizziness or fainting. It can result in strokes or cardiac arrest.
The surgical procedure was relatively quick, Busko said. Preparation took about 20 minutes. Then it took Miske about a half hour to insert the pacemaker. An incision was made high on her left chest area. The pacemaker was inserted and wires connected to her cardiovascular system. Her pacemaker was set to keep her heart beating at 75 beats per minute, Busko said.
Pacemakers are good for six to eight years before they need to be replaced.
It is set so that every month or two, it will transmit a report to Dr. Miske’s office, Busko said, or she can make it send a report whenever she wants. It could be set to transmit daily, but that also would run down the battery more quickly.
Cautions include being careful around cellphones, even her portable phone, and anything else with a magnetic field. The pacemaker is on the left. She must always hold the phone on the right to keep the magnetic field from disrupting the electronic beats, she said.
“I’m the first one in our family with heart problems,” said Busko, a retired clerk of Warren City Council and former longtime president of the Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County, where her twin sister, Mary, also served on the board.
She traces it to a July 31, 1985, automobile accident when she was hit by a teenage driver at 86 mph, which left her with a left bundle branch blockage. A bundle branch block can create a delay along the pathway that electrical impulses travel to make the heart beat.
“These things that create issues with the electrical system in your heart lead to other problems,” Busko said. “I was lucky that it took this long” before suffering consequences.
Herman said that investigation of the bundle branch blockage led to following the cardiac functions, which revealed the arrhythmias. The pacemaker lets Busko get back to feeling normal.
At 87, Busko exercises twice per day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Exercises include squats, wall planks, stretches and weights. (“I’m down to 5-pound weights.”) She also tries to be careful about what she eats.
None of that would have helped this situation. “Diet would not have done anything to help the electrical system,” she said.
Busko also heaped praises on Trumbull Regional Medical Center in Warren.
“The grass always seems greener, but they have great doctors here,” she said.
“Their cardiology team is really good. You don’t need to go to Cleveland to get an expert in the field. I can’t say enough about Trumbull Regional. Everybody down
the line makes you comfortable.”
That brings up a point that Busko remains passionate about emphasizing — if it doesn’t feel right, have it checked.
“A lot of older people, especially going through this, say what it is is (that) I’m getting older,” Busko said. “You really have to listen to your body.”
If you are experiencing lightheadedness, don’t put off getting it checked, she said. It could make the difference between life and death.
“Living and dying — that’s a huge difference,” Busko said. “Listen to your body when it’s trying to tell you something.”
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