Pacemakers keep hearts beating
Rotarian cardiologist, Rogelio Tangco, examines a patient, Jose Ramie Baltero, whom he implanted with a pacemaker, in Manila, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Heartbeat International
In 1977, cardiologist Federico Alfaro returned to Guatemala from the United States after completing his education at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. A year later, a 17-year-old boy under his care died because his family couldn’t afford a pacemaker, a battery-operated device that helps the heart beat in a regular rhythm.
“It made a big impact on me,” said Alfaro, a member of the Rotary Club of Guatemala de la Asunción. “It left a scar on my heart and as time went on, I realized the situation was the same, or worse, throughout the country.”
Vowing not to let such a tragedy happen again, he proposed that his club establish a center that would provide pacemakers and free implant surgery to low-income Guatemalans. With the help of a US$261,200 3-H Grant from The Rotary Foundation, that initiative snowballed and in 1984 resulted in the creation of Heartbeat International, a nonprofit in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA. Over the years, senior Rotary leaders have supported the organization, including Past RI Presidents Herb Brown, Carlos Canseco, Frank Devlyn, and Rajendra Saboo. It has also received Matching Grants from the Foundation.
Today, Heartbeat International has 46 pacemaker distribution centers in 28 developing countries, says its president, Wil Mick, a member of the Rotary Club of Tampa Downtown Daybreak, Florida, USA. The system works like this: Local Rotary clubs, which oversee the centers, assess a person’s economic need. Once financial need is established, Heartbeat International ships a free pacemaker to the center, and a doctor implants it. All medical services, which are frequently provided by Rotarian doctors, and lifetime follow-up are free.
Nearly 9,000 devices have been implanted (80 percent were pacemakers and the rest were defibrillators) in adults and children, Mick says. The youngest patient, he says, was a newborn in Mexico and the oldest was a 102-year-old in Honduras.
“When you give someone back their life and their future, when you give a family back their child or mother or father, you create bonds of international goodwill which lead to peace,” Mick says. “These are Rotary ideals, so we believe that our pacemakers are peacemakers.”
For more information go to www.heartbeatintl.org or call (813) 243-8769.