September 14, 2022 From patient to researcher

By Veronica Schmitt

Veronica Schmitt as a toddler

I am a patient, academic, mom and security researcher for Medtronic. I have had my cardiac device for most of my adult life. I have a passion for digital forensics and incident response. This means that the cybersecurity and digital forensics capability of medical devices are very important to me. One could say the topic is close to my heart. I have a history of working hard to change things to be more secure and better. But wait, let me start at the beginning.

I grew up in a small town in South Africa. I had a fairly normal childhood that was fairly healthy with no issues. We were none the wiser about the time bomb that was ticking in my heart. At the age of 17 I started experiencing periods in which I would lose consciousness. These became more frequent, and with that came an intense sense of fatigue. Sometimes I was so tired that I could not even get out of bed. This was not normal and was concerning to me and my family. I went through the process of using a cardiac holter, a small monitor that records the heart’s rhythm, and it did not seem to capture anything abnormal. Yet, this unknown condition took over my life, even forcing me to write my senior exams while in the hospital.

Then finally came the diagnosis. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Whilst admitted to the hospital, I found myself unconscious and was diagnosed with a rhythm disorder in which my heart stops. I was told that to live, I needed a cardiac device. However, in South Africa the cardiac device I needed was not covered under my insurance. My family simply could not afford this expense out of pocket. I made the decision at 19 years old to go home and wait on the inevitable worsening and the growing likelihood that I’d not make it. I remember the clarity of mind that I had and how I wanted to go home and be in a familiar space and not in a clinical one.

But the evening before I went home, my cardiologist informed me that Medtronic offered the device I needed pro bono and the hospital and medical personnel did the surgery after hours. This saved my life and returned most of my quality of life to me. My mother told me that the first thing she noticed was my feet were warm and no longer ice cold. From that moment, I was committed to making a difference in the medical device field.

Veronica Schmitt

I spent years researching and learning about healthcare technology devices both in my professional and personal life and ultimately got a master’s in computer science, all while working in law enforcement and raising two girls.  I owed my new life and these opportunities to my Medtronic device. I truly believe medical technology can give patients back their future and the ability to be anything.

About five years ago I became more actively involved in cybersecurity because the everchanging landscape got me curious about the security of my own implant. I started doing research to better understand the motivation behind hacking and whether the device in my chest posed a bigger risk to me than my medical condition did. This all happened at the same time as I was due for a new device. Like all patients, I had a lot of questions about the security of an implanted device.

Often, I speak to other patients who refer to Hollywood series like New Amsterdam, Grey’s Anatomy and Homeland that portray scenes with medical devices hacked with the push of a single button. As a cybersecurity researcher, I know those scenes are purely fiction, but I still wanted to do my own research. I ultimately decided to have a new device implanted because as a cybersecurity professional, I know the device, like all technology has a very slim chance of being vulnerable, but I also know with 100% surety that without my device I would die. I chose to live.

My experience as an academic, patient and researcher for Medtronic have reinforced my commitment to building healthcare technology that puts patient safety first. For me, that means focusing on security and bringing a forensic-based approach to keep patients safe. This enables for a more observability into the device functions and potentially catching problems early on. I hope my work and personal story can help other people when they have to choose a medical device. Every day I choose to be beautifully broken and wonderfully flawed, to embrace my broken heartbeats. I choose to live and embrace the gift given to me at 19.