Man’s best friend now has access to a much-needed medical device, thanks to a partnership between The Medical Center, Navicent Health, or MCNH, and the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The partners’ Pacemaker Donation Program provides heart patients at MCNH the option of donating their used pacemakers to canine heart patients at UGA.
Like humans, dogs are at risk for developing cardiac complications that can interfere with length and quality of life. Knowing that surgeries to address heart problems in dogs can be very expensive, one Navicent Health nurse decided to take action to help dogs in need of cardiac care.
“The similarities between how animals and humans are treated for certain diseases are very strong. When I was studying to become a nurse 20 years ago, I learned that pacemakers for human beings could be utilized in dogs, as well,” said Terri Matula, a board certified cardiovascular nurse at MCNH.
At the time, Matula owned a cocker spaniel that suffered from third-degree heart block dysrhythmia. She knew that pacemaker implantation might be a solution to help her dog live a longer and healthier life, but as a student, she did not have the means to pay for the operation. That memory came to Matula’s mind when her husband, Robert Driver, needed to have his own pacemaker upgraded.
“I asked his cardiology team if I could keep the pacemaker after they replaced it and then called the University of Georgia to find out if I could donate the device to the College of Veterinary Medicine,” said Matula.
Matula felt confident that the experts at UGA would be able to make good use of the pacemaker. Her instincts were right. After learning that she could donate her husband’s pacemaker for a dog in need of the device, she presented her idea to the cardiac administration team at MCNH, connecting them with experts from UGA. Her recommendation has launched a thriving collaboration between MCNH and UGA.
“When a patient’s pacemaker is exchanged, upgraded or replaced, the patient is offered the option of donating their used device to the Pacemaker Donation Program. Everyone – our staff and our patients – has been excited to save the lives of animals with reusable devices,” said Beth Mann, vice president for cardiovascular services and nursing strategy at Navicent.
Since the inception of the Pacemaker Donation Program in 2018, 41 pacemakers have been donated for patients at UGA. Once the pacemakers are explanted at MCNH, they are sterilized and shipped to UGA. Only the pacemakers of living donors are used for the program. Many of the pacemakers have at least five and a half years of battery life remaining, offering aging dogs the opportunity for many more evening walks and games of fetch. The pacemakers with less battery life are useful as teaching tools in the classroom for UGA’s veterinary students.
“Developing a relationship with Navicent Health and our cardiology service has been a really rewarding experience. It has been a great example of teamwork and of selflessness and generosity on the part of Navicent Health and its patients,” said Gregg Rapaport, a veterinary cardiologist at UGA.
Any pet owner whose canine receives care from UGA can participate in the pacemaker program. UGA typically implants five to 10 pacemakers into dogs each year, and to date, six dogs have received pacemakers donated by patients at Navicent Health.
According to Rapaport, the program is an example of the difference one person can make.
“None of this would be possible without Terri Matula and Gordon Thomas, a member of our development team here at UGA. This project demonstrates that with some creativity and a desire to share with others, solutions can be found. Each donated pacemaker that has benefited a person will now have benefited a dog, as well. The same resource will have positively impacted twice as many lives with no downside to anyone, and we can all feel good about that,” Rapaport said.
Patients with pacemakers in need of replacement who wish to donate to a dog in need may talk with their Navicent Health care team about participating in the Pacemaker Donation Program.