Atrium Health’s Cardiac Lifeline to Residents of Belize Marks 10-Year Milestone

11.07.2022 Atrium Health News | Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute

Critical heart care from the Carolinas a literal lifeline to Central America

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Nov. 3, 2022 – Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is celebrating a 10-year partnership with the main hospital in Belize, providing expertise, training and equipment to patients and providers living in the county. Previously, residents of the Caribbean country on the northeastern coast of Central America had to travel to another country to have a cardiac catheterization or open-heart surgery.

Over the past decade, the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute team has performed 289 cardiac catheterizations, 36 interventional procedures to correct serious heart problems and 28 open heart surgeries for Belizean patients.

“It is very rewarding to know we are making a difference for people who had no other options, except to travel to other countries where, for most, the cost would have been prohibitive,” said Dr. Glen Kowalchuk, an interventional cardiologist at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, who is part of the team that has traveled to Belize. “Everyone wants to receive care close to home near family and friends. We are providing the means for them to have their conditions diagnosed and treated in their community.”

The collaboration began in 2009 when Atrium Health formed a partnership with the Heineman-Robicsek Foundation to develop the International Medical Outreach Program. Through that partnership, the team provided the equipment, supplies and the expertise to finally enable residents of Belize to receive necessary cardiac care. In 2011, cardiologists from Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute performed the first cardiac catheterizations in Belize and they have been going back ever since.

“All of our doctors volunteer their time and expertise on these trips,” said Theresa Johnson, director of International Medical Outreach at Atrium Health and executive director of the Heineman-Robicsek Foundation. “I admire their dedication to helping people who otherwise could not get advanced cardiac care.”

Johnson says Atrium Health teams usually make six trips each year to Belize to care for patients and provide training – a pace that is expected to increase in 2023.

More than 1 million cardiac catheterization procedures are performed each year in the U.S. to diagnose and treat a variety of common heart conditions including heart vessel blockages, irregular heartbeats or heart valve problems. It is a procedure that is often taken for granted in the U.S. But it was unavailable to Belize’s 400,000 residents until Atrium Health stepped in.

Until 10 years ago, there were no catheterization labs or cardiac surgery facilities in Belize. The country’s only cardiac surgeon, Dr. Adrian Coye, could not offer specialized cardiac care to patients overseas due to a lack of equipment and support staff. With proper equipment and assistance from Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute surgeons, Coye is now about to offer lifesaving open heart procedures. In September 2022, the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute team helped Coye perform heart valve replacement surgeries for three patients.

“Our work there is also a training mission,” said Dr. Eric Skipper, chief of adult cardiac surgery at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “We are sharing the most advanced techniques and approaches and, in doing so, we are helping train Dr. Coye’s associates so he can build his program to help more patients. It is a very collaborative relationship.”

According to Coye, the team from Atrium Health is helping his facility, Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital – which is the nation’s flagship hospital, build a comprehensive system of health care delivery. 

The partnership was initiated by the late Dr. Francis Robicsek, founder of Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. He was a well-known humanitarian with a love of Central America and a passion for helping the most vulnerable populations. While visiting his friend, the late Sir Barry Bowen, in Belize, Robicsek learned of the absence of cardiac care there and subsequently met Coye.

Robicsek then turned to Atrium Health to help supply equipment and asked his cardiovascular colleagues to lend their support. That early commitment has blossomed over the years to bring advanced cardiac care to hundreds of residents of Belize.

About Atrium Health  

Atrium Health is a nationally recognized leader in shaping health outcomes through innovative research, education, and compassionate patient care. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Atrium Health is an integrated, nonprofit health system with more than 70,000 teammates serving patients at 40 hospitals and more than 1,400 care locations. It provides care under the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist name in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, region, as well as Atrium Health Navicent and Atrium Health Floyd in Georgia and Alabama. Atrium Health is renowned for its top-ranked pediatric, cancer and heart care, as well as organ transplants, burn treatments and specialized musculoskeletal programs. A recognized leader in experiential medical education and groundbreaking research, Wake Forest University School of Medicine is the academic core of the enterprise, including Wake Forest Innovations, which is advancing new medical technologies and biomedical discoveries. Atrium Health is also a leading-edge innovator in virtual care and mobile medicine, providing care close to home and in the home. Ranked nationally among U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals in eight pediatric specialties and for rehabilitation, Atrium Health has also received the American Hospital Association’s Quest for Quality Prize and its 2021 Carolyn Boone Lewis Equity of Care Award, as well as the 2020 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Health Equity Award for its efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in care. With a commitment to every community it serves, Atrium Health seeks to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all, providing $2.46 billion last year in free and uncompensated care and other community benefits.