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News Room: HEALTHCARE HEROES -- Finalist Spotlight -- Dr. Thomas Carrigan

Dr. Thomas Carrigan of St. Elizabeth Physicians is a clinical cardiac electrophysiologist specializing in the invasive treatment of heart rhythm disorders in adults. His goal as a heart rhythm doctor is to explain complex heart rhythm problems in ways that patients can understand. He also serves on the board of directors for Project My Heart Your Heart, a research study based out of the University of Michigan, and is on St. Elizabeth Healthcare’s Heart & Vascular Institute arrhythmia subcommittee and St. Elizabeth Healthcare’s quality committee. He is affiliated with the Heart Rhythm Society, American College of Cardiology and American Medical Association.

In the United States, people who suffer from slow heart rhythms are often able to have pacemaker implantations. People living 5,500 miles away in Ghana with the same diagnosis usually have different results due to lack of resources or medical specialists available to perform these procedures.

In July 2013, Dr. Carrigan led a weeklong medical mission trip to Ghana to implant new pacemakers in indigent patients. “The need is great and growing every day,” he said. “In Ghana, there is only one institution that is capable of implanting pacemakers.”

Carrigan spent his time at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, the second largest hospital in the country and the only tertiary care referral center in a service area of 12 million people. The hospital has an emergency room, trauma program, noninvasive cardiology program, multiple operating rooms and equipment, but its cardiologists do not have the skillset to perform pacemaker implants. Carrigan is working to coordinate and train the cardiologists to perform the procedure. “Even with someone trained, many patients don’t necessarily have the resources to get it done, because they have to pay out of pocket for the device and surgery,” he said.

As a result, many thousands die annually. In fact, of the 10 Ghanaians who were pre-screened and identified to receive pacemakers during Carrigan’s visit, five received the devices. Most of the others died before he could get to Ghana to perform the procedures.

Samuel, a 6-foot-4, 72-year-old policeman, could barely stand before he received his pacemaker. “He had a slow heart rate for about 12 months and he became symptomatic every time he stood up,” Carrigan recalled. “But, within two hours of undergoing the procedure and having the pacemaker implantation, he insisted on standing up to thank me. When we last followed up with them, everybody we treated was doing great and there weren’t any problems – they were very happy,” said Carrigan.

Carrigan said many others need these fairly simple procedures across Africa. The issue is that the devices are expensive – at least $5,000 each, according to Healthcare Blue Book. As a result, trips like Carrigan’s can only take place when companies donate new pacemakers.To help solve this issue, Carrigan is also working with Project My Heart Your Heart. The project’s goal is to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make it legal to safely recycle pacemakers and export them to developing countries like Ghana. Every year, thousands of Americans with heart rhythm disorders die and are buried with barely used, fully operational pacemakers still implanted. Project My Heart Your Heart hopes that these devices will be voluntarily donated upon death and removed (similar to organ donation), sterilized and repackaged for reuse. This work was featured in a BBC newscast on November 5, 2013:

Carrigan said that many pacemakers have in excess of 85 percent of their battery life left when an individual dies. This can translate to 8-12 years of function. With proper sterilization, they could be used to save lives.

Carrigan is currently planning a trip to Ghana for next summer. Depending when physicians are trained in Ghana, the trip may take place in spring 2014. In addition to the pacemaker program, My Heart Your Heart is working with many manufacturers, including Boston Scientific, to donate the equipment necessary to do catheter ablation of fast heart rhythms.

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