Docs told of pacemaker recycling
By DIANE COCHRAN
Of The Gazette Staff
Bill Daem doesn’t get too excited about telephone calls from reporters - not after being featured in People magazine and on the CBS Evening News.
But his media presence passed a milestone of sorts last month when Daem, who recycles pacemakers to be used in developing countries, was mentioned in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.
The four paragraphs devoted in JAMA to Daem’s efforts were significant because the medical establishment generally disapproves of what he does.
Through his organization Heart Too Heart, Daem collects used pacemakers - surgically implanted devices that regulate the heartbeat - from funeral homes and family members of the deceased. Those that can be reused are turned over to physicians headed on medical missions to Eastern Europe and South America, where they are implanted for free in patients too poor to pay for the devices or the surgeries.
In 13 years, Daem has sent between 1,400 and 1,600 pacemakers overseas. Many of them were given to children.
"The people I’m servicing have absolutely no means to acquire these on their own," he said.
The Food and Drug Administration does not permit pacemakers to be recycled for human use in the United States, although used devices can be implanted in pets. Pacemaker manufacturers also do not look fondly upon their reuse.
"The concerns are generally around the safety side of it," said Blake Hunter, founder of the online support group Pacemaker Club and a board member for Heartbeat International, a not-for-profit group that distributes new pacemakers for free.
Hunter, based in New Brunswick, Canada, said he knew of Heart Too Heart but was not familiar with its operations.
In general, he said, there are fears that safety alerts issued by pacemaker manufacturers after the devices are on the market might not reach overseas patients with secondhand models.
There are also concerns about the cleanliness of reused pacemakers.
Still, an estimated 1 million people worldwide live in poor health or die each year because they cannot access cardiac devices, Hunter said.
"I think the concept is good," he said of Heart Too Heart.
Despite Hunter’s vote of confidence, there are many in the cardiac health industry who remain skeptical about recycling pacemakers.
That’s what made Daem’s mention in JAMA notable.
If he was enthused about the nod, he didn’t let on.
Daem, who retired as an assistant chief from the Billings Fire Department 20 years ago and serves as a deacon in the Catholic church, is a bit of a cynic.
Media coverage of his one-man enterprise has been a mixed blessing over the years because news outlets get it wrong more often than they get it right, Daem said.
Still, he keeps granting interviews. Asked why, he shook his head.
"I’m just a beet farmer from Custer," he said.
Daem got the idea to recycle pacemakers in 1994 after his wife’s mother died. Anna Kuntz’s pacemaker was fully functional.
"The pacemaker was such a success and so helpful that when she died it disturbed us that it couldn’t continue helping anybody else," Daem said.
He and his wife, Evelyn, asked around but were told there was no reason to save it.
"The pacemaker was buried with her," he said. "That should have been the end of the story."
Later, in his role as a deacon, Daem was talking to a local funeral director who mentioned he had a drawer full of pacemakers at his office. The devices must be removed before a body is cremated because they can explode during cremation.
The pacemakers in the funeral director’s drawer were testing his patience because their alarms kept going off.
With support from that funeral home and others in Billings, Daem renewed his efforts. Soon, the local funeral directors took his idea to their state association, which shared it with their national group.
Then phone calls from reporters began trickling in, and word got out across the nation.
"It’s taken on a life of its own," Daem said.
Pacemakers turn up in his mailbox one at a time in padded envelopes or packed into boxes in bulk. About 20 percent of them can be reused.
Most people like the idea of recycling them once they learn it’s an option, said Greg Bealer, a funeral director at Smith Funeral Chapels in Billings.
"People take this much like an organ donation," Bealer said. "Mostly it’s a pretty positive thing."
Some families have declined to participate, Bealer said. In at least one instance, a family didn’t want a loved one subjected to another invasive procedure.
Even after 13 years, Daem has never met any of the people helped by Heart Too Heart. Foreign medical centers extend invitations, but he always declines.
It would be a waste of money for him to go, he said. Think how many surgeries the money spent on travel costs could buy.
Contact Diane Cochran at email@example.com or 657-1287.