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Keeping pace with God's love

by CAROL SHIRK KNAPP / Contributing Writer
| November 15, 2023 1:00 AM

I recently had my pacemaker interrogation. Once a year the cardiology office collects and graphs the data it contains. Turns out my own heart is only doing about 25% of the work — and it's the device that is keeping my rate above fifty beats a minute. I was born with a slowpoke heart that has lagged even more with age. 

Contemplating this the other day, I felt flooded with gratitude for this implanted gadget. I wondered who invented it, and did some investigating. What an interesting story.

Wilson Greatbatch — yes, that's his real name — haled from Buffalo, N.Y. He died at 92 in 2011. On the GI Bill, he earned an electrical engineering degree from Cornell University — followed with a master's from the University of Buffalo. He “loved fiddling with objects” — and that passion led him to develop the implantable pacemaker.

While researching in 1956 at the animal behavior farm at Cornell, he built a heart rhythm recorder. When he “mistakenly” added the wrong electronic component,  his device generated electronic pulses — instead of merely recording the intended sound of the heartbeat. He understood in that moment that it could “help an unhealthy heart stay in rhythm by delivering shocks to help the heart muscle pump and contract blood.”

He spent the next couple of years perfecting his discovery. But it was difficult to find a heart surgeon who believed in his invention. Eventually Dr. William Charduck did. He was chief of surgery at Buffalo's Veteran's Hospital. On May 7, 1958, they exposed the heart of a dog in the hospital's animal lab, and touched it with the two pacing wires. The heart “beat in synchrony” with the device.

Later Greatbatch wrote, “I seriously doubt if anything I ever do will give me the elation I felt that day when a 2 cubic inch electronic device of my own design controlled a living heart.” The world's first implantable pacemaker was placed in a human patient in 1960. Since then Greatbatch's device has extended and saved millions of lives. In the early 1970s he went on to manufacture lithium batteries, allowing pacemakers to remain operable for over ten years.

Greatbatch — a man of faith — did not hesitate to honor God for his “mistake.”  He said, “It was no accident, the Lord was working through me.” As he continued with more research and inventions he remarked, “I frequently took problems to the Lord in prayer, and I always got the answer.”

I was 6 years old when this man happened upon his great discovery. Sixty-five years later it matters to me. It is a constant source of wonder how God weaves lives together. How He enables human beings to help one another. I will never be an inventor of devices — an engineering mind was not in the plan. Instead, I am an inventor with words and thoughts.

With the right encouragement each person has something to offer that can make a valuable difference for someone else. Discovering what that is — and how to develop and support it — is perhaps the greatest “research” journey of all.