George Samson plucks a silvery device that looks like a Christmas ornament out of a plastic bin full of them. The device is a used pacemaker, one of thousands stored at the Southfield-based charity World Medical Relief, where Samson is CEO.
The pacemakers have all been removed from the dead before cremation and donated by families, funeral homes, and recycling businesses nationwide. The devices are part of a first-of-its-kind effort called Project My Heart Your Heart, based at World Medical. Its aim is to save heart patients in poor countries by giving them refurbished pacemakers they could not otherwise afford.
“So far 100 to 120 pacemaker implants have been done in the Philippines, and (there have been) about 20 combined in Africa and Nicaragua,” Samson says. “Ten countries have now given approvals to be part of My Heart Your Heart.”
Dr. Kim Eagle, director of the University of Michigan Health System’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center in Ann Arbor and head of My Heart Your Heart, says reusing pacemakers can give “hundreds of thousands who might otherwise die a chance for life.”
As part of the project, Dr. Thomas Crawford, associate professor of internal medicine at U-M, has made several trips abroad to implant pacemakers and train foreign doctors. “Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death around the world,” he says. “As countries modernize, we see more obesity” that can lead to heart trouble.
Over more than a decade of clinical trials and studies, the project has brought together universities and volunteers including Wayne State University in Detroit, U-M, businesses, funeral homes, doctors, foreign governments, and wealthy donors. The facility at World Medical, which sends recycled medical equipment and medicines ranging from surgical suites to bandages to the needy in more than 100 countries, is officially named the Sheldon and Marion Davis Pacemaker Recycling Center.
Sheldon Davis, an advisor to the My Heart Your Heart, says it has overcome many challenges, including initial opposition from pacemaker manufacturers and piles of paperwork to get approvals from U.S. and foreign governments. Implanting used pacemakers is illegal in the U.S. due to contamination concerns, but in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration approved the practice in other countries.
The pacemakers — new ones cost as much as $25,000 — are removed before cremation.
“We ask families if the deceased has a pacemaker,” says John P. O’Brien, president of the O’Brien-Sullivan Funeral Home in Novi. “Most people are glad to participate when I tell them (about My Heart Your Heart).”
After the pacemakers are stabilized, they go to another partner, Northeast Scientific Inc., a recycler of surgical devices, in Waterbury, Conn. There, the refurbishing is completed. Craig Allmendinger, CEO of Northeast Scientific, has traveled to Haiti and Sierra Leone with Crawford and says he “sees a need out there that’s not being met. We’re giving back.”