Pacemakers: When your heart needs help

February 18, 2009

It’s a device about the size of a pocket watch. It can be implanted with minor surgery. It helps to regulate your heartbeat.

If you said, “What is a pacemaker?” you might be a “Jeopardy” champion. Or perhaps you’re a pilot with a pacemaker, like Jim Zieman of Robards, Ky.

A pacemaker may be implanted to help control your heartbeat, to make sure it is not beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Zieman, 66, received a pacemaker approximately five years ago to correct a too-slow heart rate. “I kept feeling extremely tired,” he says. After a 30-year career with the Kentucky Highway Department, Zieman figured he was simply in bad physical condition, until a checkup and follow-up revealed otherwise. The implant procedure was “an overnight deal, and I felt like a new person,” he says.

At the time, Zieman wasn’t concerned with getting or keeping a medical certificate. He’d flown ultralights for years, and medical certification wasn’t an issue. In 2008, he and his wife earned sport pilot certificates. The enjoyment they experienced by spreading their wings led the Ziemans to consider going for private pilot certificates for powered aircraft.

For that, of course, they would need medical certificates. Zieman discovered that the pacemaker was “a red flag for the FAA.” In other words, a pacemaker implant is a disqualifying condition in terms of obtaining a medical certificate, but a pilot can apply for a waiver known as a “special issuance.”

After the pacemaker is implanted, a pilot must wait at least two months before applying for a special issuance. However, there is quite a bit of paperwork and test results that must be submitted along with the request, including copies of all medical and hospital records concerning the condition that warranted the pacemaker and testing to determine correct pacemaker function. You can find detailed information on AOPA Online.

Zieman was concerned about pursuing a medical, knowing that if it were denied, he wouldn’t be able to exercise his sport pilot privileges. “If I [went] for the private, I’m gambling a bird in the hand against one in the bush,” he says. “But, being a country boy, I’ve swum upstream most of my life.” He decided to “fight the giant,” and he turned to AOPA for help.

Working with medical certification specialist JoAnn Wilson and other members of AOPA’s Medical Certification team, Zieman plunged in, gathering the paperwork and getting the necessary tests to submit his application. The process took about six months, with Wilson checking continually on the status of his paperwork at the FAA’s Oklahoma City offices. When the special issuance was issued, Zieman says he told AOPA, “We have fought the giant and won the first battle.” Without AOPA in his corner, he says, “I don’t think I would have ever taken it on, or if I had, once they started hitting me with all the things they were looking for, I might have thrown up my hands.”

And Zieman knows that AOPA will remain in his corner. In the next year or so, his pacemaker will require insertion of a new battery, possibly a new implant. With that process will come another round of paperwork. But he’s not concerned. He’s looking forward to finishing up his private pilot requirements and flying with his wife. They’re considering purchasing an Aeronca Champ that they could operate on the 700-foot strip on their Kentucky farm, but also looking forward to flying the bigger airplanes that their new private pilot privileges will permit.

“”Don’t be afraid of the old giant,” Zieman counsels. “Do what they ask you to do. There’s a lot they’ll ask that will seem ridiculous, but it’s their ballgame.”

If you have questions or concerns about a heart condition or any medical condition, contact the experienced medical certification staff in AOPA’s Pilot Information Center. They are available to take your telephone calls from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern at 800/USA-AOPA. You can also contact us by e-mail.