Setting the pace, with heart, student leads an active life

Malia Riggs, Staff writer

“I’m battery-operated,” Linfield student Claire St. Marie, acknowledged. “This is me. I’m kind of like Iron Man. At least that sounds the most cool when I tell people I have a pacemaker.”

St. Marie is a junior nursing major on Linfield’s Portland campus. She’s also a member of the school swimming team, but she doesn’t let having a pacemaker slow her down. She suffers from a condition called heart block. This is when the heart beats too slow and the electrical signal in the two chambers of the heart does not connect. This makes it so the heart does not beat in sync.

St. Marie is a resident of the Seattle area, and she’s been skiing competitively since the age of 10. She has also competed in swimming and water polo, two other highly strenuous activities, since an early age. All while she has unknowingly had the heart condition.

Having competed in athletics almost all her life, St. Marie wasn’t expecting any problems with her first high school sports physical.

However, during the exam her resting heart rate ran only about 45 beats per minute, compared to a normal rate of 60 to 100. An EKG was performed, and the results were sent to Seattle Children’s Hospital for analysis.

“It was 9 a.m on a Sunday morning when my mom answered the phone,” St. Claire recalled. “It was Children’s Hospital telling my mom to rush me up as fast as she could.”

Her mother woke her up to tell her she needed to get her to the hospital right away. “All I could think was, ‘That’s not how this works, Mom. You can’t just wake me up and declare we’re going to the emergency room. I’m sleeping.’”

At Children’s Hospital, a specialist told St. Marie that she had a serious heart condition. If she didn’t want to live in a constant fear of spontaneous death, she would have to have a battery-powered pacemaker implanted.

“I’m 14, and I’m sitting in the hospital thinking, ‘Pacemaker or death. Cool.’ Obviously, I went with the pacemaker,” she recalled.

The procedure and recovery cut her freshman year of swimming short in high school. But the pacemaker keeps her heart beating normally, allowing her to continue competing.

St. Marie doesn’t let having a pacemaker hinder her from living out her life, athletically or otherwise.

However, it does impose some rather peculiar restrictions. For example, individuals with pacemakers can’t undergo security screening at airports because the electromagnetic waves used to detect metal objects can a disrupt the programing.

“Some other weird restrictions I have are that I can’t go into a radio tower. I don’t know why I would want to, but now I can’t. I also can’t jump on trampolines, which at 14 kind of sucked,” she said.

“I can either look at it by living in constant fear or I can look at this in a positive light. Hell yes, I have a pacemaker. This doesn’t define my life or me though. It’s just something cool and unique about me.”

“The mindset around pacemakers is that people are inactive and the device enables them to do things. That is because pacemakers usually go in, like, 80-year-olds.”

“My pacemaker helps me be a better athlete. It allows me to function to my highest ability. So it is more of a help than a hindrance.”

St. Marie also said having a pacemaker has opened her eyes to other athletes and the struggles they might be facing. “You just don’t know what other athletes racing in the lane next to you are dealing with,” she said.

“I bet the person that I race next to me isn’t thinking, ‘A chick with a pacemaker is beating me,’” St. Marie said.