Pacemaker recycling program endorsed

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2010 - 2:32 PM

Device-makers oppose the practice, in which used pacemakers removed from the deceased go to patients abroad.

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Pacemakers were gathered from several Michigan funeral homes and crematoriums in a recent pilot project. Ultimately, the devices were implanted in needy patients in the Philippines.

Photo: Howard Mitchell /World Medical Relief,

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The board of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association has endorsed a program that recycles pacemakers from the deceased and reuses them in needy patients abroad.

The unique program was developed by a team of doctors at the University of Michigan, with support from a nonprofit group, World Medical Relief Inc., and Michigan's funeral directors. Now the Minnesota association will encourage members to participate.

In a Michigan pilot program, pacemakers were removed from the deceased -- with the family's consent -- and then tested for battery life and disinfected at the university. Then the devices were sent to a hospital in the Philippines for patients who were in medical and financial need.

A Nov. 14 Star Tribune article about the program caught the eye of semiretired funeral director Allen VeVang of Bloomington. "It sounded like a wonderful program that we should try in Minnesota," he said.

He presented information about the program to the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association's 18-member board, which agreed to promote it to members statewide. The University of Michigan will provide guidance and support, including a standard consent form for families to sign, as well as packaging to ship the donated pacemakers for testing and cleaning.

Funeral directors and crematorium operators often remove pacemakers from the body after someone dies, but the devices may have several years of life remaining. Removal is particularly important prior to cremation, since the intense heat of the cremation chamber can cause a device to explode. Often, the devices are thrown away.

The Michigan program refurbishes the pacemakers and sends them to partner-hospitals abroad with experienced staff who can implant them in needy patients. So far, the program -- called Project My Heart-Your Heart -- has worked with a hospital in the Philippines and another in Hanoi, Vietnam.

None of the recycled devices will be used in the United States, since the Food and Drug Administration prohibits the activity. Big makers of pacemakers -- Medtronic Inc., Boston Scientific Corp., and St. Jude Medical Inc. -- all oppose the practice.

"The [Minnesota funeral directors] feel as though these devices are currently a wasted resource that could potentially change the lives of many in Third World countries," said Dr. Timir Baman of the University of Michigan Hospitals' Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, and one of the program's founders.

Minnesota is the first state outside of Michigan that has expressed an interest in participating in the voluntary program.

According to a University of Michigan study, about 1 million to 2 million people a year die worldwide because they lack access to pacemakers. With a pricetag abroad of about $800 -- much less than the cost in the United States -- pacemakers are still cost-prohibitive in many countries.

Gary Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, said funeral directors can decide individually whether they want to participate in the program. "Funeral directors are compassionate people who care about helping and assisting families and making sure there's not just tragedy at the end of life," he said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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