Finding the Right Beat: Pacemaker puts Blythewood Woman Back in the Cycling Seat

Sharon Sherbourne knew something wasn’t right. An avid cyclist and runner, she was training for a long-distance race when her legs felt heavy and her heart rate remained low even when she was exercising vigorously.

The 67 year old had begun an exercise routine about 15 years earlier, while she helped implement wellness programs as vice president of human resources at a Blythewood manufacturing plant. “I knew I had to walk the walk, so I started doing aerobics. A friend from church got me involved in the running community, so I started training for a 5K, and that morphed into doing an 8K.”

Sharon cycling in Blythewood

She eventually completed four full 26-mile marathons, along with numerous half-marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks. About 10 years ago, she added long-distance cycling to her workouts, but recently, she found herself out of breath climbing a flight of stairs. She made an appointment to see a doctor.

“My first cardiologist told me I was simply getting older and I probably didn’t need to be doing all that stuff,” Sharon said. “But I knew it was more than that. You know your own body.”

Then, she was referred to Lexington Cardiology and William W. Brabham, MD, FHRS, an electrophysiologist with Lexington Cardiology, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice. Dr. Brabham specializes in the treatment of abnormal heart rhythms. He scheduled a treadmill stress test for Sharon.

“As her workload increased on the treadmill, her heart rate peaked in the 70s to 80s, which is very unusual for her age. At 67, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for her heart rate to reach the 150s to 160s, especially with the level of activity that she typically would participate in,” Dr. Brabham said.

He diagnosed her problem as chronotropic incompetence, which is the inability of the heart to increase its rate to a level that matches a person’s activity level, combined with AV block, a condition where the signals from the top chambers of the heart don’t make it to the bottom chambers.

“It appeared most likely a result of age-related changes in the conduction system of the heart,” he said. “Just the way the rest of your body ages, the conduction system in your heart can age to varying degrees.”

Dr. William Brabham, Lexington Cardiology

He recommended a pacemaker, a device that monitors heart rate and stimulates the heart if it drops below a pre-programmed rate. A dual-chamber pacemaker, the type Sharon has, also restores the connection between the top and bottom chambers of the heart.

Sharon’s pacemaker was implanted in March; by late June, she was training for a 100-mile bike ride.

“I feel fantastic. It had gotten to the point where, when I was walking up stairs at the house, I’d get to the top and I’d be completely out of breath. So I had my pacemaker implant on March 7, I came home March 8 and the very first thing I did was walk up the stairs to see if it had made a difference. It had.”

For Sharon, a mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of one, the experience drove home the importance of listening to her body and going the extra mile for answers.

“Age should not be the marker for anything. Your physical fitness level, what you enjoy doing, what you’re used to doing — that should be what drives your behavior and drives your medical practitioner’s response,” she said. “I felt that Dr. Brabham really understood that and worked with me to make all of it happen.”

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