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Recycled Pacemakers Save Lives in India, But Not US


For some heart patients in India who cannot afford a pacemaker, the donation of recycled pacemakers from deceased Americans is a life saver and has been shown to be “very safe and effective.” Such reclaimed, recycled pacemakers are sent outside the United States to save lives because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does now allow these devices to be reused in the states.

Recycled pacemakers are a gift of life

The idea of reusing pacemakers from deceased individuals and implanting them in patients in need in countries other than the United States has been explored by several institutions. The latest report comes from Loyola University Medical Center, where Dr. Gaurav Kulkarni, who was a medical student in India at the time the study was conducted and who is now a first-year resident in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, and his colleagues from other institutions conducted research on 53 disadvantaged heart patients in Mumbai, India, who received recycled pacemakers.

A total of 121 pacemakers were donated by the families of deceased patients between 2004 and 2010, and those with a battery life of 3 or more years were chosen. All the selected pacemakers underwent a thorough screening and sterilization process before they were sent to Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai, which cares for everyone regardless of income.

Fifty-three disadvantaged patients in Mumbai were given the donated pacemakers. All the patients had either complete heart block or sick sinus syndrome, and without getting a pacemaker they would have died within weeks or months.

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After implantation, all the patients were followed for an average of nearly two years, and there were no reports of infections, significant complications, or device failures. Only two patients did not experience a marked improvement in their symptoms.

Every year, millions of people around the world die because they cannot afford a pacemaker. The sad fact is that at the same time, tens of thousands of people who have a pacemaker die each year and their pacemakers are removed and tossed into the trash—devices that could save lives of heart patients everywhere.

According to survey results reported in Circulation in October 2010 by the University of Michigan, 87% of people with a pacemaker and 71% of the general population would be willing to donate a device to individuals in need in underserved countries. India is such a country, where a pacemaker can cost $2,200 to $6,600, a cost that surpasses what many families can afford.

The University of Michigan survey also questioned 100 Michigan funeral directors, and 84% noted that pacemakers were typically thrown away or stored with no purpose, and 89% said they would willingly donate them for charity.

Kulkarni and his colleagues concluded that “Implantation of donated permanent pacemakers can not only save lives, but also improve quality of life of needy poor patients.” This life-saving effort does not apply to the United States, however. The FDA prohibits the reuse of pacemakers in the United States, although the agency does allow the devices to be donated and reused in other countries.

Loyola University Medical Center
University of Michigan