In 2004, Amber Freed was a typical college student. She was studying finance and accounting at the University of Denver and was loving her college experience. Upon first glance, she seemed just like her fellow classmates. But, what set Amber apart from the rest was that she had been struggling with a troubling medical condition for several years.
“Since I was a child, I experienced fainting spells,” Amber said. “My heart rate would drop really low and I would pass out. It could happen anywhere, at any time. Although it was scary, but it became part of me and it was something I lived with every day.”
Amber’s cardiologist in Denver diagnosed her with a heart arrhythmia. The arrhythmia caused her heart to beat irregularly, resulting in periods of dramatically low heart rate and blood pressure. And, because Amber’s heart could not effectively pump blood to her brain during these arrhythmia episodes, she often fainted. This temporary loss of consciousness is also called syncope.
By the time she was in college, Amber was fainting frequently and her cardiologist decided it was time for her to have a pacemaker implanted in her heart to help control rate and rhythm, thus reducing or eliminating potentially dangerous syncope. So, in 2004, Amber had pacemaker implantation surgery.
“I was nervous about having a pacemaker inside me,” Amber admitted. “My cardiologist had told me I might never live a ‘normal’ life without it, but I was never comfortable feeling reliant upon a foreign device.”
Amber began doing research online to discover natural ways to control her arrhythmia to help avoid the need to use her pacemaker.
“I didn’t know if healthy options would help control my condition or not, but I was willing to try anything. I increased my daily salt intake, added vitamins to my diet and learned exercises to increase circulation,” Amber said. “In situations where I may have fainted before, like standing up after sitting in a chair, I now practiced new exercise and breathing techniques.”
Much to Amber’s surprise, after implementing a natural, heart-healthy routine, her arrhythmia and syncope seemed to be under control. Her fainting spells were few and far between and tests proved she rarely utilized the pacemaker.
“Most days, I completely forgot I even had a pacemaker,” Amber said.
But in 2011, that all changed. Amber’s pacemaker, which had lay seemingly dormant inside of her for seven years, seemed to be increasing her heart rate without warning and she was concerned. She immediately went to see her cardiologist, and after several appointments, he discovered that the battery in Amber’s pacemaker was losing its charge causing the device to “go rogue,” or malfunction.
“I was not reliant upon the pacemaker, so my cardiologist and I agreed it was not benefiting my health in any way,” Amber said. “Together, we agreed that I no longer needed it.”
Amber’s cardiologist gave her three options. She could have the pacemaker and all its components removed, she could leave it implanted in her heart without a battery, or she could have the device itself removed and the wires left in place. The decision was left up to Amber, and as her pacemaker continued to malfunction, she knew she didn’t have much time to decide.
“All three options seemed risky to me, and my cardiologist confirmed that. There is always a risk involved with heart surgery,” Amber said. “I was scared. I didn’t know which option to pick. I didn’t want to leave the device implanted in me unnecessarily, but I also was extremely nervous about undergoing surgery that could lead to further complications.”
Amber turned to her friends on pacemakerclub.com, a free online community for pacemaker recipients and their family and friends. Throughout the many years she had her pacemaker, Amber found the Web site to be a source of support and inspiration from others who had faced similar challenges.
“Other members of the pacemakerclub.com community told me I should turn to Cleveland Clinic for help,” Amber said. “Many members attested to receiving excellent care at the Heart and Vascular Institute there. So, I logged onto the Cleveland Clinic Web site to find out what my options were.”
Almost immediately, Amber came across the MyConsult ® Online Medical Second Opinion program; a sophisticated, Web-based extension of Cleveland Clinic’s 90-plus-year role as one of America’s respected referral institutions. The secure, online program provides medical second opinions from Cleveland Clinic specialists for more than 1,200 life-threatening and life-changing diagnoses.
“The MyConsult Online Medical Second Opinion Program seemed like a great opportunity for me to gain a new perspective on this tough decision I was faced with before I made a cross-country trip from Denver to Cleveland,” Amber said. “Right away, I started gathering my medical records and test results to send to the MyConsult Clinical Operations team.”
At Cleveland Clinic, Fetnat Fouad-Tarazi, MD, and Bryan Baranowski, MD, both cardiovascular medicine specialists, were ready to review Amber’s case and provide their expert opinions.
“I was really pleased with how quickly I received my MyConsult second opinion report back,” Amber said. “On the report, Dr. Fouad-Tarazi indicated that she believed I could still benefit from the pacemaker but supported having it removed as well. Dr. Baranowski said the same thing, but added that because the pacemaker was serving no purpose for my heart, having it removed would also be a safe, viable option.”
Amber said she felt more at ease after hearing the opinions of both Cleveland Clinic cardiologists. “The options they provided me with were the same as those given to me by my cardiologist in my hometown, but I felt more comfortable and prepared to make my decision after taking advantage of the MyConsult Online Medical Second Opinion program.”
In the summer of 2011, Amber decided to have her pacemaker and all its components removed. There was only one place she could see herself having the procedure done: Cleveland Clinic.
“After the wonderful interactions I had with the staff throughout my MyConsult Online Medical Second Opinion, I felt like I would be in such caring hands at Cleveland Clinic,” Amber said. “After a couple phone conversations, I immediately connected with Bruce Wilkoff, MD, who specializes in removing pacemakers.”
Amber flew to Cleveland with her husband and sister by her side. She underwent the pacemaker removal procedure with Dr. Wilkoff in late August of 2011.
“Dr. Wilkoff was great and I was especially impressed with the care I received from the Cleveland Clinic nurses as I recovered,” Amber said. “Each one went out of his or her way to make my family and me totally comfortable. They showed such compassion during my five-day stay in the hospital.”
Amber flew back to Denver and returned to work within a week following the removal of her pacemaker. According to her, she plans to continue managing her arrhythmia at home by living a healthful lifestyle and using natural techniques. She has not had any syncope episodes and is currently feeling fantastic.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the MyConsult Online Medical Second Opinion program which ultimately led me to Cleveland Clinic to undergo the pacemaker removal procedure,” Amber said. “Now, more than ever, I feel like the happy, confident person I was always meant to be.”