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Singer, big sister, and The Pacemakers’ inspiration

Sarah was in the pediatrician’s office for a well-baby checkup with her 4-month-old daughter, Anna Jo. It was a normal day, like any other. Sarah was multitasking, running through her To Do List in her head.

Then she noticed the pediatrician’s face when she checked Anna Jo’s heart.

“She had one of those looks on her face that you never want to see,” Sarah recalls. “And then she went to get another doctor to listen to Anna Jo’s heart.”

The doctors discovered that Anna Jo’s heart rate was 65 beats per minute. The rate for an infant should range between 80 and 115. They sent Anna Jo straight to have an electrocardiogram (EKG) done to learn more. After the test, Sarah stopped by her husband Ben’s fire station and the firefighters were shocked to hear that Anna Jo’s rate had dropped to 45.

Sarah and Ben took Anna Jo to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and were immediately admitted to the Betty Irene Moore Children’s Heart Center.

The Heart Center team monitored Anna Jo closely, with a cardiologist by her side every minute. Her rate would eventually drop to 12 beats per minute and the team brought her into surgery to have a pacemaker implanted.

The turn of events took Sarah and Ben by surprise. Until now, there had been no indications of any issues with Anna Jo’s heart.

“It’s like we got dropped into a nightmare,” Sarah explains. “Anna Jo’s heart block is idiopathic, which means they have no idea what caused it. Structurally, her heart is fine. It is an electrical issue—the top of her heart doesn’t talk to the bottom of her heart, so the pacemaker ensures they are in synch and pumping.”

Anna Jo weighed just 10 pounds during that first pacemaker surgery. Three years later she received a larger device, and then another update in 2022 to replace an aging battery. The family recently learned that Anna Jo will need another surgery this year to replace some elements of the device that aren’t functioning properly.

Over the years, Anna Jo has benefited from the support of her full care team that includes electrophysiologist Anne Dubin, MD, who is the director of the Heart Center. She has benefited from child life playrooms and at 3 years old was prepared for her procedure by a child life specialist.

“Back when Anna Jo was a baby, we realized pretty quickly how lucky we were to have such a great hospital so close,” Sarah says. “A lot of people have to fly in from Hawaii or drive from all over the country to get here.”

Today Sarah and Anna Jo are always amazed by the diverse license plates they come across in the hospital’s parking lot as they arrive for Anna Jo’s check-ups with the Heart Center team. Anna Jo undergoes intensive monitoring twice a year and is monitored from home twice a year as well. She needs to steer clear of roller coasters and water slides, but she leads a full life as a middle schooler, enjoying singing in her school’s choir and attending opera performances with her classmates.

In gratitude for the outstanding care Anna Jo has received over the years, the family created a Summer Scamper team they dubbed “The Pacemakers.”

We hope you’ll come out to the Stanford campus on June 25 to cheer on Anna Jo and The Pacemakers, along with many other amazing patients from our Heart Center!