Metro Detroiters create program to reuse pacemakers for people in need

World Medical Relief, U of M Hospital start pacemaker reconditioning program

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Implanted medical devices, especially pacemakers, have changed and saved lives, but they've generally been considered single-use machines. Now, that concept is changing.

The story behind the realization that pacemakers could be reused came with two nearly simultaneous events in Metro Detroit.

Ten years ago, George Samson, president of World Medical Relief in Southfield, came across an article in a Philippine newspaper.

"When I saw the newspaper, this woman was begging for help," Samson said.

Tess Pantaleon was desperate for a pacemaker to replace the one she had because the battery was running out.

"She was only earning like $120 a month with five members of the family," Samson said.

Samson said that's when he recognized the need for pacemakers in underserved countries. He was able to secure one in the United States that was still usable and sent it to the Philippines' largest charged hospital in Manila.

Pantaleon recounted the events in a thank-you letter to World Medical Relief.

"I received a phone call from the Philippine General Hospital, who informed me that a pacemaker was available for me," Pantaleon said.

"They implanted the pacemaker the next day into this woman," Samson said.

At nearly the same time, Dr. Kim Eagle, director of the Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan, was faced with a related question.

"One of our cardiology fellows came to my office with a very unusual story," Eagle said. "He had put a pacemaker in a woman a few months before who subsequently died of heart failure."

The woman was being cremated, so the pacemaker needed to be removed. It was given to her husband by the funeral home and, realizing it was essentially new, he brought it to her doctor.

"(He said), 'I was you to take my wife's pacemaker and sterilize it and give it to someone in the world who can't afford one,'" Eagle said.

Since then, the University of Michigan has partnered with World Medical Relief to develop the My Heart, Your Heart pacemaker program, where previously used pacemakers are being tested, certified and reconditioned before being sent to help needy people in other countries.

"World Medical Relief, thank you very much for your help," Pantaleon said. "I hope you do not get tired of helping the poor like me. I should have been dead, but because of the pacemaker you sent, I am still alive."

While the concept is straightforward, setting up the world's first pacemaker reconditioning program has been an interesting challenge.

Tune into Local 4 News at 11 p.m. Wednesday to get a look inside the facility where the work is being done and see some of the steps between receiving the pacemaker and getting it to someone who needs it.

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