Local man a walking experiment for new pacemaker

Larry Zahm, of Huntington, displays an illustration of an innovative new pacemaker he had implanted last year. Zahm had the pacemaker, which is no bigger than a large vitamin capsule, implanted as part of a clinical trial that included a little over 700 people worldwide.
Larry Zahm, of Huntington, displays an illustration of an innovative new pacemaker he had implanted last year. Zahm had the pacemaker, which is no bigger than a large vitamin capsule, implanted as part of a clinical trial that included a little over 700 people worldwide. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published June 20, 2016.

Last year, Larry Zahm was contemplating having routine cataract surgery.

Instead, he wound up being one of 700 people in the world to be implanted with an experimental pacemaker.

Before Zahm, of Huntington, would consider having a cataract operation, he wanted to make certain his heart would be up to the challenge.

“I wanted to be sure that I could stay awake, watching somebody working on my eyes without having a heart attack,” says the 77-year-old.

So, that March, Zahm scheduled an appointment with his advanced cardiologist. He had an electrocardiogram done, which uncovered no problems. Before leaving, Zahm’s doctor requested that he wear a heart monitor for 24 hours.

When Zahm returned to the doctor’s office to obtain a copy of his monitor test, he was denied one, as the doctor had not examined it yet.

Needing a copy to take with him to a heart specialist, Zahm requested that the office fax a copy to the specialist once the doctor looked it over.

“You don’t see specialists unless you have all these tests done first,” Zahm explains.

With the arrangement made, Zahm and his wife, Kathy, who were living in Davenport, FL, at the time, set off down Interstate 95, bound for Baptist Medical Center, in Jacksonville, FL.

On the way there, Zahm got a call from his advanced cardiologist; he’d finally read his test.

It wasn’t good.

“So, here I’m driving on Interstate 95 and my advanced cardiologist calls me and says, ‘Larry, I do not want you to go to the motel,’” Zahm recounts. “‘I want you to go directly to the emergency room at the hospital because your heart monitor test is so bad you need a pacemaker today.’”

The doctor diagnosed Zahm with bradycardia – a slow heart rate. Whereas a normal heart rate falls between 60 and 100 beats per minute, Zahm’s heart was beating at a rate of just 40, necessitating the implantation of a pacemaker.

After the specialist Zahm was going to see at Baptist Medical Center informed him that he was a stent doctor, arrangements were made to set Zahm up with a pacemaker surgeon. Things progressed rapidly from there.

“So, I got into the hospital and the surgeon came in and he said, ‘You do need a pacemaker and we’ll do it in the morning,’” Zahm recalls.

Then things took an unexpected turn.
“He comes back two hours later,” Zahm states, “and he says, ‘Larry, you are a good candidate for this experiment that we’re doing for pacemakers.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Zahm would come to learn that he was referring to the Micra Transcatheter Pacing System. Manufactured by Medtronic, a medical technology development company, Zahm learned that the Micra TPS differs from traditional pacemakers in significant ways. One way is its size. Medtronic notes that the Micra TPS is 93 percent smaller than conventional pacemakers, likening it to the size of a large vitamin capsule. Another way is its placement relative to the heart. Whereas regular pacemakers are placed under the skin, near the collarbone, with pacing leads attached to the heart, the Micra TPS is placed directly into the heart’s right ventricle and features no leads.
At the time Zahm was in the hospital, Medtronic was rolling out the Micra TPS with a global clinical trial. A total of 719 people around the world agreed to Micra TPS implantation.

Zahm was one of them.

He says he had no fears about consenting to be implanted with an experimental piece of technology. Learning that 80 and 90-year-olds were successfully undergoing the procedure, for instance, gave him confidence.

“I said, ‘My God, they’re surviving. So, I should be able to do that,’” Zahm states.

Zahm’s surgeon implanted him with the Micra TPS using his leg’s femoral vein and a catheter. The day after the procedure, Zahm was free to leave the hospital.

“I asked (the surgeon), ‘Do I have any restrictions?’” Zahm says. “And he says, ‘No, you have no restrictions. You can do anything you want.’”

Zahm says he’s had several routine checkups of the pacemaker since it was implanted. Currently, he gets it checked every six months, with his next appointment coming in October.

He hasn’t had any problems.

“I have no side effects,” he says. “I can do anything I want. Yesterday, I was helping my brothers carry marble rock around.”

Medtronic estimates that the lifespan for the Micra TPS is 12 years. A new unit can be placed alongside the old one, which can either be turned off or retrieved.

The clinical trial that Zahm was a part of has since concluded. Based on the positive results of that trial, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the Micra TPS its approval this past April.

Ironically, Zahm hasn’t gotten around to having cataract surgery yet. Figuratively, though, when it comes to his health, he’s seeing more clearly than ever before.

“I think there’s four things people should be concerned about during their lives,” he observes. “That is health, intelligence, sociability and religion. … They have to have those four things.

“The main thing is that your health is very important, because it will shut down the other three things or slow you down on your other three things.”

Zahm is grateful that the pacemaker has helped strengthen his health and inspired him to make healthful changes in his life, such as no longer drinking soda or coffee.

“I was very fortunate to be picked,” he says of the clinical trial.