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Couple with heart problems keep love alive with pair of pacemakers

Crow Wing County couple Bill and Sharon Wortham both have pacemakers-defibrillators. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Crow Wing County couple Bill and Sharon Wortham both have pacemakers-defibrillators. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

IDEAL TOWNSHIP—Almost nothing gets their hearts going like the sight of one another—even after more than 50 years—but Bill and Sharon Wortham share more than a love for the ages.

For the Ideal (Township) couple, their pacemakers-defibrillators—his third, her first—is another thing they have in common that has helped keep their love for each other alive all these years.

"He was in the Marines. I thought he was pretty handsome," Sharon said of their first meeting at an armed forces dance before becoming reacquainted four years later at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., and marrying in 1960.

They have lived in the Brainerd lakes area since 1989. Bill worked in human resources for DeZURICK in Sartell for about two decades before he retired. And the couple with congestive heart failure co-owned the Shady Lawn Resort in Alexandria.

"I had a heart attack in 2004—I had a quadruple bypass surgery—and then it was in 2009 that I got my first pacemaker," said the 81-year-old father of two grown daughters—one in St. Cloud, another in Edina. "And the reason you get a pacemaker is to assist the heart in functioning."

Ann Weismann, a CentraCare Health marketing specialist, said the couple's situation demonstrates how companionship with others can make a hard situation better and how love can flourish through good times and bad.

"I told my electrophysiologist the other day when he put this new one in that he's going to have to learn how to do it externally, without having to open up your chest and go in there," Bill said jokingly. "It's not a terribly complicated issue, but you've got to make sure all the wires are OK."

He said he never gives a second thought about the medical device that helps ensure his survival. He just lives his life with his 78-year-old wife without, figuratively speaking, skipping a beat.

"You don't think about it until it sets off an alarm or something," Bill said. "One alarm says, 'Hey, you've got something wrong with your heart. The pacemaker is not taking care of it,' and then there's the other that says, 'Your battery is getting low. You need to think about replacing it.'"

The CentraCare Heart & Vascular Center has a clinic in Baxter. It specializes in coronary artery disease, advanced heart failure, valve disease, vascular care and risk factor management.

"Until speaking with some CentraCare Heart & Vascular Center staff, I didn't realize it was more common than you think for couples to both have pacemakers. About 2 to 3 percent of their pacemaker patients are in this situation," Weismann said.

"Some people feel, women especially, that having a device distracts from who they are. When a spouse has one, too, it helps to remove the perceived stigma — the couple is in this together.

Patients support one another."

The Baxter location also provides electrophysiology services for atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm problems, as well as a pacemaker/implantable cardioverter defibrillator clinic.

Sharon said she was in the hospital in St. Cloud when they determined she needed to have her pacemaker/defibrillator, which was implanted at the St. Cloud location.

Bill interrupted his wife and said, "That's when she died and came back to life ... at least that's what the nurse said, that she had died."

Sharon still possesses the good humor to joke that they both "run on batteries," but she still finds it difficult to admit or acknowledge that—for a moment—she was clinically dead.

"I don't think either one of us would have been here if it weren't for our heart conditions and our pacemakers," Sharon said gratefully of expecting another Valentine's Day together as a couple.

"We've gone through 'thick and thin'—a year ago, I wasn't sure he was going to make it—but every couple has. Don't let them tell you they don't."

Frank Lee

Voted most likely in high school ... "not to be voted most likely for anything," my irreverent humor (and blatant disregard for the Oxford comma) is only surpassed by a flair for producing online videos to accompany unbiased articles about Crow Wing County about, say, how your taxes are being spent, by your elected officials, on issues or topics that matter to YOU.

Writing local feature stories about interesting people in the community, however, and watching and discussion movies are among my passions. ... Follow me on Twitter at either of these accounts: @DispatchFL (for news) or @BDfilmforum (for movies).

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