Era Butler had surgery to replace the battery in a pacemaker system used to regulate her heartbeat

March 31, 2014
A few months after 62-year-old Era Butler retired from a celebrated teaching career in her hometown of Perris, California, she had surgery to replace the battery in a pacemaker system used to regulate her heartbeat The pacemaker - which uses a small, battery-powered generator to deliver timed, electrical impulses to the heart muscle through tiny wire leads - had been implanted 12 years earlier when complications from an illness caused Butler's heartbeat to become irregular. Less than a week after the pacemaker battery replacement, Butler began suffering from fever, chills and body aches. “I thought it was a flu virus,” says Butler's daughter, Gloria Woolridge. “I didn't suspect it was the pacemaker until three weeks later.” Physicians at the hospital near Butler's home, where the procedure had been performed, ordered a series of tests and subsequently re-hospitalized her. After determining that she had an infection, her doctors prescribed antibiotics. Butler still failed to improve. Her local physicians then determined that Butler's pacemaker leads had been infected and transferred her to a tertiary healthcare facility in Los Angeles specializing in cardiac care. However, physicians at the hospital told Butler they did not have the expertise or the technology to remove the leads and that the risk of surgery was prohibitive. They planned to continue to treat Butler with antibiotics. Butler's daughter worried about this approach. “I had done the research, and I thought, that's not going to work. She's going to die,” says Woolridge. Butler had developed an infection inside her heart. Woolridge soon discovered the “ piece” for her mother was lead extraction surgery, a specialized procedure required when the pacemaker leads become damaged, infected or blocked by scar tissue. Only a handful of physicians in the world perform the surgery. Fortunately for Butler, one of those surgeons is Raymond Schaerf, MD, Chief of Staff at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and member of the prestigious Heart Rhythm Society. “When I first started doing lead extractions in 1979, the only operation available was an open heart procedure,” notes Dr. Schaerf. “With the development of the new tools and the advanced technology available at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center (PSJMC), patients can often go home in one to two days and only have a standard pacemaker incision.” Gloria Woolridge considers all of it a gift: the technology, the staff and Dr. Schaerf's leadership, expertise and compassion.