La PORTE – The world’s tiniest pacemaker, about the size of a large vitamin, has been successfully implanted into the heart of a retired Michigan City priest in the first procedure of its kind in the area.

Bob Gehring couldn’t be happier with the device, feels better than he did before and can’t recall any pain from the procedure, he said in a statement from La Porte Hospital.

Gehring was the recipient of the first leadless pacemaker implanted in La Porte, Porter, Starke or Marshall counties on June 27. Scott Kaufman, an electrophysiologist on staff at La Porte Hospital, deployed the world’s tiny device into Gehring’s heart by threading it up through a vein in the groin, like other procedures done inside the electrophysiology lab.

Hours later, the 81-year-old was walking around, and just weeks later, says he he has much more energy than before, and he’s not worried about passing out behind the wheel of his car. He is even back to working as a part-time chaplain at Franciscan Healthcare Michigan City.

Gehring’s problems began when passed out in the hospital lobby while finishing up a chaplain shift.

“My cardiologist, Dr. McKindra Fletcher, told me I needed a pacemaker, or I wouldn’t be able to drive anymore,” he said in the statement. “At first I was anxious about it because I knew surgery would be involved, but then Dr. Kaufman told me I was a candidate for this procedure and showed me how tiny the unit was, and I thought: This is going to be a good thing.”

Gehring suffers from a condition called bradycardia, characterized by slow or irregular heart rhythm, usually fewer than 60 beats per minute.

“Dr. Fletcher told me my heart was actually stopping for about 2.5 seconds at a time before starting again,” he said.

When it happens, the heart is not able to pump enough oxygen-rich blood during normal activity or exercise, causing dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, or fainting spells. Pacemakers are the most common way to treat bradycardia to help restore the heart’s normal rhythm and relieve symptoms by sending electrical impulses to the heart to increase the heart rate.

Kaufman said Gehring was an ideal candidate because he has a chronic heart rhythm condition called atrial fibrillation, associated with symptomatic slow heart rates. Therefore, he only needs single chamber pacing, which this device provides.

“Bob’s procedure went flawlessly,” the doctor said.

The pacemaker is the latest generation of devices and has no external wires, or leads. “This means we could implant it directly into the heart, and we did not have to create a surgical pocket under the skin in the chest. The device is also designed to automatically adjust pacing therapy based on Bob’s personal activity levels,” Kaufman said.

Gehring is impressed with the device’s data transmission technology. A small transmitter sits by his bedside and automatically transmits data from his device to a monitoring system, so nurses can continually review heart activity.

“I had to go in one week after my procedure for a check-up, and they told me I don’t have to come back for an entire year. The battery life is good for up to 11 years,” he said.

If by off chance his device needs to be replaced in the distant future, it is small enough to remain in the heart and another one can be placed near it.

“An extensive amount of training and planning occurred on the part of Dr. Kaufman and the electrophysiology lab staff to be able to offer this technology to our patients,” said Chris Atherton, RN, director of cardiology services at La Porte Hospital.

Gehring is no stranger to heart procedures. In 2001, he had a minimally-invasive mitral valve replacement at a hospital in Chicago. He was grateful he had the opportunity to have this latest procedure close to home.

“La Porte Hospital is only 20 minutes away from my home. It is nice to have that kind of care here locally,” he said.

Gehring, who grew up in a farming family in North Judson, has done missionary work in Cambodia toward the end of the Vietnam War, where he helped refugees fleeing bombed villages. He also spent 10 years in Bolivia traveling to jungle villages to teach the gospel.

An ordained priest for 50 years, and retired for 15 years from the Diocese of Gary, he says he has more energy to continue doing the things he loves in retirement, like dinner outings with fellow retirees and a monthly discussion group on important topics.

His experience carries over to his chaplaincy work.

“Now that I’ve had this procedure, as I work as a chaplain, I’m now able to tell people, ‘I just went through this myself. I know what you’re going through. I’ve had this procedure and my heart is still ticking away,” he said.

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