“Homo artificialis” from Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention Magazine, 1924. (Via David Zondy.)

“Homo artificialis” as conceived by Joseph H. Kraus & H. Winfeld Secor in 1924, from Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention Magazine. (Via davidszondy.com)

So I was feeling pretty good, this day a few weeks ago, and I thought it was about time that I got back to the three-times-a-week cardiovascular exercise group I’d been faithfully working out with since around the year 2001. That is going on nine years. It is also, I believe, the principal reason I’m still alive now. Of course, since I’ve been pretty much housebound for most of this year with one confounded thing after another, I couldn’t get there. So I had to start all over again like a rookie.

I made an appointment and got over to the place and had a nice talk with Rose, who is now the head rehab nurse. All went well. We settled on when, where and what, exactly, I would be doing, and then Rose took my vital signs. And then it all fell apart. My heart rate was 41.

This is not a pulse that is compatible with staying alive for very long. So Rose called Adrian Deme, my new primary-care doctor. He told her to get me to an ER for evaluation. And next thing you know, I was in a hospital bed getting ready for a pacemaker.

Actually it wasn’t quite that fast. There were a few little annoyances they had to track down and fix first, but then it was straightforward. A pacemaker implant requires cutting a little hidey-hole into the flesh of your chest just under the collarbone, tucking the little electroshock-emitting gadget in there, with its powerful little battery. Then they run a wire from the gadget to your heart. The wire ends in something like a tiny ordinary wood screw, which the surgeon screws into the flesh of your heart with something like a tiny screwdriver. Since he can’t see through the meat and blood he has to operate this by x-ray. Then, when he gets it well screwed, he closes you up and you’re done.

Before you get to that point, though, they wheel you into the operating room, which you are not overjoyed to discover is really chilly. They keep it that way to discourage germs, and they won’t let you put on a sweater, Then the nurse spreads some soap on your bare chest and scrubs it vigorously. When she gets it the cleanest it has ever been, she spreads a fresh batch of soap on your chest and repeats the process. She does this three times. Then the surgeon steps up and starts to cut.

Were you thinking that might hurt? It doesn’t. You don’t feel any pain. At some time when you weren’t looking the anesthesiologist has put that whole area of your chest to sleep. You do feel that there is somebody doing all kinds of unexpected things down there, and you aren’t at all sure that you care for it. But then that stops and you’re on your way back to your hospital bed, all done.

And the next morning they send you home.


  1. David Ratnasabapathy says:

    Cripes. Best wishes for a swift and complete recovery!

  2. Ken St. Andre says:

    Nice one, Fred! You made your luck saving roll that time. And thanks for demystifying the pacemaker operation. It doesn’t sound so bad. Glad you’ll be with us a while longer, and hope you get back to your cardio exercise soon.

  3. Ken Houghton says:

    The next morning??

  4. Bill Crider says:

    My very best wishes!

  5. Don Sakers says:

    Congratulations on the good start toward robotification. Keep up the good work. And keep taking good care of yourself.

  6. Blake in NJ says:

    Man + … pacemaker. I\’m looking forward to your next incarnation, hopefully more streamlined than homo artificialis. Kraus and Secor were true visionaries, if not practical. I have been enjoying your fandom posts. Thanks for fueling my RSS feeds.

  7. Stefan Jones says:

    (Hey Ken!)

    I was just talking about pacemakers with a co-worker, who was a little concerned to hear that an elderly neighbor is getting one. What I’d heard about them matches Frederik’s account. Amazing, how some drastic-sounding procedures have become commonplace. (It came up in the first place because I was giving him a computer to pass on to her . . . a computer, better than anything I had up to two years ago, that I found left out by the trash. Another astonishing thing.)

  8. A. Shelton says:

    I hope you make a full recovery and I’m glad to hear they caught it before it turned out worse.

  9. David Davisson says:

    Yikes! That sounds alarming. I hope your recovery is swift and you’re soon back with your cardiovascular exercise group.

    Thanks for keeping this blog! It’s a joy to follow along. Your series on early fandom is terrific.

  10. Kirk Snavely says:

    Hope you are feeling better.

  11. Marc says:

    Eek! Well done Rose for spotting the issue! Best wishes and a speedy recovery.

  12. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    I had a great summer job in the Seventies working for a company that made cardiac pacemakers.

    They had grown really fast in the go-go years– medical equipment had a nicely profitable markup– and had recently run into trouble. Some components in the pacers turned out to be bad. They needed to be recalled. Fortunately, most of the questionable products were stored on shelves, and hardly any had to be removed from patients. But it was not good for the company’s reputation, and the Food and Drug Administration was in court seeking an injunction to shut the company down.

    They really, really needed to improve their quality control. Inspectors found that lots of manufacturing procedures were not documented. So the company pulled engineers off other work, and hired students, to write a small mountain of documentation describing all their processes.

    I learned something about industrial engineering, and quality control, and the importance of Writing Stuff Down. Like I said, it was a great job.

    At the time, pacers needed to be replaced every two years or so as their batteries ran down. This company had just spent a decade or so developing an experimental atomic pacemaker, powered by a speck of plutonium-238 and some thermocouples. As an Atomic Age kid, I found this fascinating, though I did not work in the plant where the plutonium pacers were made. Turns out that a new development, the lithium battery, could give a pacemaker a very long lifetime– about half as long as an atomic battery, but at a much lower cost. (Also, the Atomic Energy Commission was going to require undertakers to send the Pu-238 back…)So the plutonium-powered pacer never made it to market. That’s why you’re not Atomic Fred today.

  13. Jeff says:

    My neighbor just went through that. She got back from a long cruise and had a scheduled doctor\’s appointment for the next morning. Routine pulse check showed she was hitting about 45. By the time they got her to the ER, it was below 30. If she hadn\’t had that scheduled appointment, she probably wouldn\’t have woke up the next morning.

  14. Jeff Gondek says:

    I’m exceedingly happy to hear that Frederick Pohl is now a cyborg. 😀

    Best wishes in recovering and your health!

  15. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:


    I was wrong. A little research (see the fascinating http://books.google.com/books?id=sy-mQbaTVSQC&pg=PA115) tells me that, by 1979, about 3000 patients carried nuclear pacemakers from various manufacturers. Nevertheless, plutonium turned out not to be worth its hassles.

  16. John Traylor says:

    Glad things went well for you Mr. Pohl and best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  17. milieu says:

    My mom got a pacemaker when she was visiting me.

    Apparently, she had been having a low heart rate and her doctor suggested she should consider one. We talked about it while she was there, and she had decided not to do it.

    I got awakened at 4 am by my dad saying “something is wrong with your mom”. Ended up calling 911, they took her in, and they nicely explained that her heart rate was low, and she should really have a pacemaker done.

    While we were thinking it over, she coded, and they rushed her off and installed one.

    It’s a wonderful souvenir of her trip, though. 😉

  18. Stephen A Kupiec says:

    Best wishes on recovery etc
    But I’m still disappointed that you didn’t go for the whole Man Plus upgrade.

  19. Bill Goodwin says:

    The spear was good for making holes,
    The flint fixed other inborn flaws,
    The trend continued; now Fred Pohl’s
    Become The Clockwork Man of Oz!

    Dare I even say Man Plus?
    Designed by no mere chromosome!
    A city boy, so I’ll not fuss
    If you call him a Metro Gnome…

    But, puns aside, I must now say,
    All the best to this fine gent,
    Whose heart and mind shine bright as day
    In Science Fiction’s firmament!

    Mend Quickly,

  20. RBH says:

    That kind of thing can be a jolt. After a neuro guy I was seeing on account of an unexplained numbness in one arm couldn’t find a right carotid pulse on me he zipped me over to get an ultrasound and then to a vascular guy who said, looking at the output of the ultrasound, “We’re not going to do this before the sun sets today, but we sure as Hell are going to do it before the sun sets a week from today.” Three days later they cut my throat and routed out my left carotid (the right one was — and still is — untreatably clogged). So be well, Fred, and know you’re not the Lone Ranger. :)

  21. Chookie says:

    Hope you can now write a new story on the first attempt to send colonists off somewhere… and how en route they realise what the death rates are likely to be since they don’t have routine equipment like pacemakers to hand…