“My heart is failing.”

by Cecilia LaFrance

Pam Bolpe weaves her shopping cart around a collapsed pile of used sporting goods.  She freely offers comments to other bargain shoppers at the Aurora ARC Thrift Store at Colfax and Florence St. “That’s for exercise. See?” A rheumatoid-wrestled finger points to a unopened package of fitness bands.  “Had to give that up.”

Pam Bolpe says she’s accepted her fate.

Congestive heart failure has taken away many of Bolpe’s liberties, some more regretful than the loss of exercise.  The retired commercial coach driver curbs her road time, sticks close to home, and keeps her schedule flexible enough to recover from automated defibrillation that can strike at any time.  At age 72, Bolpe has but 30% of her heart function and is susceptible to heart failure.  But, she doesn’t let her condition keep her down.


“It used to be your heart stops, the paramedics come, ZIT,” she mimics defibrillator paddles jumping in front of her, “and they take you to the emergency room.  And that’s a pain in the ass.”  Bolpe bobs her head in emphasis at her firsthand experience, more trips by ambulance than she can count, far more than a dozen. “The paramedics hit you with a lot of joules, and it can leave you bruised.”

Pointing at her chest, somewhere under four jackets and a sweater, Bolpe explains her salvation.  “This is attached to my heart.  So, it takes a lot less joules.”  Under her skin, nestled in her ribs, an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) connects through leads to Bolpe’s heart.  A computer detects abnormal heart rhythm and can “pace” her heart back to a normal beat.  Or, in extreme cases, it delivers 40 joules to fully defibrillate, something that happens as often as within a few days of each event or not happen for weeks.  “They’re (ICDs) popular now,” Bolpe cites herself as part of a club, seemingly diminishing the novelty of the computer-implanted science while also praising the device that has given her 18 months of assistance.

What does defibrillation feel like?  “Take your tongue and find an outlet and stick your tongue in it.” She pauses before giggling.  “Are we having fun yet?”

“My heart is failing.” The pronouncement is delivered with the same nonchalant tone as her comparison of the price of a cat scratch post at Petco to the perfectly fine secondhand one in her cart. 

“I don’t let it bother me. I’m a lot tougher than I look.”  To compensate for her heart’s inability to keep her warm, Bolpe layers her 110 lb body in oversized snow pants and jackets.   “I push myself.  I don’t hide. I don’t whine.  I say ‘Well, this is your life now and this is what you get.’ You know what I mean?”

What She Gets

Taking a break on a worn sofa, Bolpe shares tales of her days as a Greyhound coach driver and as a political activist.  A common thread of her determination reveals itself.  “We’d pick up groups from bars.  They wanted to game, but also wanted to drink.” Bolpe dealt with her share of intoxicated passengers while navigating the winding roads between Denver and the casino in Black Hawk. In her personal time, Bolpe frequented the Capital to get lawmakers to “see my side of things,” often staying until midnight when they were in session.  The concealed carry issue is one she’s particularly proud of lobbying.  “I don’t carry.  But I feel a woman should be able to have that option.  Some women are in a lot of danger.” Her days of driving up and down the canyon to the casino or advocating to late hours of the night are done. 

“I don’t need much.  I have a place to live.  I have my beat up old van.  I have my kitties.”  Her voice plays on the feline nickname.  She swipes through her phone and volunteers pictures of a service dog (left at home today due to the cold), a new grandson, and a biased amount of shots of Ivan the Terrible, her 40-pound domesticated bobcat.  Two of the three finds in Bolpe’s cart are destined for her pets.

Back on track looking for bargains, a trip up another aisle is rewarded with a portable electric grill for one of her two sons.  “And it’s old folks day, so I get it half off.” 

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