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Poland’s Lech Walesa gets pacemaker

/ Source: The Associated Press

Doctors successfully implanted a pacemaker Friday in Nobel laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa, hoping the device will keep him from needing a heart transplant.

Walesa, who came to Houston for tests this week, got the device implanted during a two-hour procedure at the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center. Walesa, 64, was doing fine after the procedure, doctors said.

"This is a tool that can improve his heart function to the point that we can avoid going to transplant," Dr. Miguel Valderrabano said before leading the procedure.

Walesa got a biventricular pacemaker-defibrillator implanted. The pacemaker will synchronize the contractions of his heart, while the defibrillator will be on standby to shock the heart if needed, said hospital spokeswoman Erin Fairchild. Biventricular means it is working on both sides of the heart, she said.

"The idea is the device paces the heart from two sides at the same time so we synchronize its contractions and make the contractions more effective," Valderrabano said. "It also keeps an eye on the heart rate and if it goes very fast it shocks the heart back into normal rhythm."

Valderrabano characterized the procedure as "routine," saying the hospital does about five per week on average. Valderrabano has personally performed the procedure "several hundred times" since it became standard about eight years ago, he said. Patients are often discharged as soon as the next day.

The pacemaker — about the size of a stopwatch — was implanted through about a 2.5-centimeter incision.

It is hoped that the pacemaker will prevent or at least postpone the need for a heart transplant.

Ready to back to his normal life
Before his procedure, Walesa was in good spirits, said Zbigniew Wojciechowski, the anesthesiologist and Polish translator during the procedure.

"He wants to get it done because he wants to go back on his way to doing what he has been doing: meetings, lectures and more active work," said Wojciechowski. "He wants to get on with his normal life."

On Wednesday, Walesa had a stent implanted into a clogged coronary artery at the center, named for internationally renowned heart surgeon Michael DeBakey.

Former President George H.W. Bush met with Walesa on Thursday, calling him "one of my real heroes" in remarks broadcast on Polish TV.

Walesa, a former Gdansk shipyard electrician, led a workers' strike in 1980 that grew into the nationwide Solidarity freedom movement against Poland's communist authorities, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

In 1989, Solidarity toppled Poland's communist regime and Walesa went on to serve as Poland's first democratically elected president from 1990-95.