Can our own ingenuity upend natural laws?

Reflections on the health of my heart and the making of Hoover Dam.

  • A view looking down Hoover Dam.

    Duncan Rawlinson/CC Flickr

As it turned out, I couldn’t tour the Hoover Dam. It was full of magnets.

“Tours are not recommended for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, or has a pacemaker or defibrillator,” read the sign in the gift shop. “Tours are conducted in confined spaces and in a power plant with generators emitting electromagnetic fields.”

“Well,” I told my friends, “I guess I’ll see you guys after.”  I climbed the long staircase back up into thin October sun. I’d get a tea at the concession stand, I decided. The dam hummed behind me.

By the time I arrived at the Hoover Dam, three years had passed since I’d been through a metal detector. At age 24, I’d had my first internal cardiac defibrillator implanted — insurance against the family arrhythmia. I’d collapsed in a gravel lot. Since my younger sister had multiple cardiac arrests under her belt, my decision seemed obvious.

I’d anticipated many of the changes that accompanied implantation: a month unable to drive, three before I could pull my shirt over my head, and six worrying about jostling the wire in my heart. But I didn’t anticipate what it would be like to be a technological person — redefined by what I contained.  (“You’re bionic!” a friend shrieked.) I was chained to tech; every three months I’d need a doctor to check my ICD. In other ways, my technological options were restricted. I would never have an MRI. I would be patted down by an endless line of TSA agents in blue rubber gloves.

Electromagnetic interference occurs when the waves emitted by one device impede the function of another. Cellphones can keep a defibrillator from doing its job; theft surveillance gates can trigger a shock. The Hoover Dam, of course, was bigger than these. It generated electricity when water spun a turbine, which turned a shaft, which rotated a series of magnets past copper coils, creating a charge. Put through a resistor, this charge became electricity, powering colored fountains in Las Vegas and hair dryers in L.A.

Magnets! I thought to myself, browsing in the snack shop. No, I would never wander the narrow passages beneath all that concrete now. The Hoover Dam and I were contraindicated.

Styrofoam cup in hand, I went out to the patio and pressed my belly against the concrete divider, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the water. Sparrows nipped crumbs beside me. If I was honest, it was OK to miss the tour. Despite having a motherboard implanted above my left breast, I’d never been charmed by technology. I was grumpy in my complicity, always resisting new developments before lurching into them. I owned a flip phone. I didn’t watch TV. So when I looked at the bowed white concrete, gleaming in the sunlight, it was with Ed Abbey’s rants in mind. I liked to think I agreed with him: that the dams were less a world wonder than a monstrosity. That a free-flowing river trumped the amenities it could power.  

I liked to think I agreed with him, but the defibrillator in my chest was really no different than a dam. Both were part of the cultural belief that man’s ingenuity could upend natural laws. Both created the illusion of security; both answered a sense of urgency. Both delayed the inevitable for a while. We’d manufactured water in the desert, a life without death. Even a Luddite like me could see there was human brilliance at work here.

When the first defibrillator was invented, doctors dubbed it the “Lazarus machine.” The Hoover Dam, too, seemed the salvation of the Southwest, approved in 1928 to provide irrigation and municipal water to a wide swath of desert, allowing cities to sprawl where before cacti reigned.

And yet, looking at the white bathtub ring on the cliffs along Lake Mead, I knew the inevitabilities were still inevitable:  L.A. and Vegas would be constrained by water. And I, of course, would still die. I was cyborg enough to be barred from the dam but not cyborg enough to avoid that dust-to-dust business altogether.

And though it was easy to be snide while drinking tea in an environmentally unfriendly cup at a tourist stop, I’d been the one who asked for this dam in my own way, when my cardiologist looked at me in the hospital and said, “What would you like me to do?” I paused a long minute. I gulped down guilt and fear, but in the end I eyeballed him and said, “Put it in.” I bought into the myth that we can hold back these forces, that we can rearrange life itself, that technology will save us.

It will for a while, I thought, pulling on a flannel shirt against the morning chill. For one person, maybe that’s long enough.

I stared down the dam from a safe distance.

Katherine E. Standefer writes about the body, consent and medical technology from Tucson.

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