Atrium Health Extends a Cardiac Lifeline to Residents of Belize

| 25 days ago

Atrium Health Extends a Cardiac Lifeline to Residents of Belize

Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is celebrating a 10-year partnership of delivering medical equipment, expertise, and life-saving heart procedures to residents of Belize.

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 we often take for granted.

But imagine that none of the medical facilities in the country where you live offered that procedure? That was the case in Belize, a Caribbean country on the northeastern coast of Central America with about 400,000 residents. Until 10 years ago, Belize had no cardiology or cardiac surgery facilities. The country’s only cardiac surgeon could not do what he was trained to do abroad because of a lack of equipment and support staff.

In 2009, Atrium Health formed a partnership with the Heineman-Robicsek Foundation to develop the International Medical Outreach Program. Through that partnership, they provided the equipment, supplies and expertise to finally enable residents of Belize to receive needed cardiac care. In 2011, cardiologists from Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute performed the first cardiac catheterizations in Belize.

Now, celebrating more than 10 years of that partnership, the Sanger heart team has performed 289 cardiac catheterizations and 36 interventional procedures to correct serious heart problems for Belizean patients. 

“It is very rewarding to know that we are making a difference for people who had no other options except to travel to other countries for these procedures. For most, the cost would have been prohibitive,” says Dr. Glen Kowalchuk, an interventional cardiologist at 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.”

In addition to cardiac catheterizations, heart surgeons from Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute have assisted Belize’s only heart surgeon, Dr. Adrian Coye in performing 28 open heart procedures since 2012. In September 2022, the team helped Dr. Coye perform heart valve replacement surgeries for three patients.

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

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

“All of our doctors volunteer their time and expertise on these trips,” says 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.” She says Atrium teams usually make six trips each year to Belize to care for patients and provide training, and the pace is expected to increase in 2023.

How did the partnership with Belize come about? The late Dr. Francis Robicsek, founder of the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute who was well-known as a humanitarian, always had a love for 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 Dr. Coye. 

Dr. Robicsek then turned to Atrium Health to help supply equipment and asked his cardiovascular colleagues for boots on the ground support. That early commitment has blossomed over the years to bring advanced cardiac care to hundreds of residents of Belize, and continue the mission here at home, and abroad to deliver care for all.