March 27, 2009

The hazards of being a cyborg, or why heart patients should never be allowed to do their own home wiring

Being a cyborg is not all it's cracked up to be -- especially if the wiring in your house is not up to snuff. Case in point is a recent incident in Denmark involving a patient with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a shower, and an improperly grounded washing machine (you can see where this is going).

Soon after receiving the device the patient was taking a shower when he experienced a pair of electrical shocks. Obviously this is not supposed to happen, so he returned to the hospital. The physicians were stumped -- there was no apparent physical reason why the device, which delivers a shock to restore normal heart rhythm if an arrhythmia occurs, should have gone off.

But during the analysis the physicians started to suspect that electrical noise had caused an inappropriate ICD discharge. On this hunch the hospital sent an electrician to check the wiring of the patient's house.

Sure enough, the electrician discovered that the washing machine was not properly grounded (the patient had installed it himself) and it was emitting the problematic electrical noise.

Interestingly (or perhaps disturbingly), this is not an isolated case; there have been scattered reports of similar events with heart defibrillators. Back in 2002 cardiologists in Hong Kong reported two such cases -- one caused by electrical signals from a power drill, the other by signals from a washing machine. And German cardiologists described an instance of a defibrillator shock delivered because of electromagnetic signals from, yes, you guessed it, a washing machine (it's becoming clear that washing machines have it in for cyborgs).

It's worth noting that the ICD is a safe treatment provided that all regulations for electrical equipment is followed.

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