The history of Halloween is rich and sometimes even a bit sordid, going back to the pagan days of yesteryear when the Celts celebrated Samhain. However the notorious holiday isn't just a cultural history block, but it was a tragic Halloween blackout that spurred the creation of the portable pacemaker, a medical device that was revolutionary in cardiac medicine.
Fifty years ago a massive Halloween blackout disrupted power across a highly populated section of Minnesota and western Wisconsin. People from St. Cloud to Faribault, the Twin Cities and Eau Claire had no electricity for up to three hours. For most, the outage was simply inconvenient. But for a few young heart patients connected to pacemakers it was life-threatening. The blackout did spur the creation the first portable, battery-powered pacemaker.
The first portable pacemakers were about the size of a small paperback book. Within a year of their introduction to the market, researchers in Sweden developed the first implantable pacemaker. Medtronic licensed the first implantable pacemaker in the U.S. a few years later. (Photo Courtesy of Medtronic)
"They had police officers pull up to the side of the surgery suites and simply turn on their headlights to provide light for the surgeons," says Norton. "They scrambled to try and keep blood cold by grabbing ice from various coolers to stick in the blood refrigerator."
Probably the scariest place to be that morning was the children's cardiac recovery unit. A number of young kids were connected to pacemakers after undergoing heart surgery.
When the power went off, doctors scrambled to find drugs to keep their patients hearts pumping. Still, one child didn't survive the three hour ordeal.
The trauma of that event rattled pioneering University of Minnesota heart surgeon C. Walter Lillehei. The next day in the hospital hallway Lillehei flagged down Earl Bakken, an electrical engineer who spent a lot of his time collaborating with university surgeons on new medical devices.
Bakken had just started Medtronic a few years earlier and was still running the company out of his garage. Bakken says Lillehei was clearly troubled about the blackout.
"We got together and talked about it and said we have to have some way to back these pacemakers up when there's a power failure," Bakken said in a recent interview. Lillehei asked Bakken if he could create a portable pacemaker that ran on a battery.
The story continues and the portable pacemaker is born and lab tested once, on a dog.
"And I said, 'Okay now. This seems to work, so I'll go back to my garage and make a pacemaker we can use on humans,'" says Bakken.
But he never got the chance. When Bakken returned to the hospital the next day, he saw his invention being used in the recovery room.
On a person.On a child.
Bakken sought out Lillehei and asked him why he didn't wait for the human version of the machine.
"And he said well as long as this battery operated pacemaker was available he wasn't going to risk losing another child to a power failure."