Belize, a former British colony (British Honduras) and the only English-speaking country in Central America, is the newest country we have begun offering assistance. It is small with less than 300,000 inhabitants and about the same size as the other small republic, El Salvador. There are only two major hospitals: One in the capital Belmopan and The Karl Heuser Memorial Hospital (KHMH) situated in the port-community of Belize City, the largest city in Belize.

We became acquainted with Belize’s cardiology-crisis through Sir Barry Bowen, the country’s most recognized and prominent citizen, who arranged a meeting with some key health care providers at KHMH, Dr. Giovanni Solorzano, Quality Assurance Director, and Dr. Gary Longsworth, Chief Operating Officer. The conference revealed that there is no modern cardiac diagnostic or interventional facility in the entire country. It was the usual story we have heard time and time again in Central America: Those who could afford it went outside the country, and those who could not were treated locally the best way they could without modern diagnostic equipment. There was also no possibility to treat imminent heart attacks with invasive cardiological management, despite the fact that an appropriately trained cardiologist was on the premises. The situation was further complicated by the fact that in a major hurricane, most of Belize City, including the KHMH, is usually 6 feet under water.

First Cardiac Cath Lab in Belize

Thanks to the assistance received from Mr. Smoky Bissell and the Bowen family, the Margaret G. Bissell Catheterization Laboratory, the first one in Belize, was installed in February 2011. A special advantage of the Laboratory is that it is housed in a large trailer, which needs only a tractor to transport it to higher ground should a hurricane hit the City. In such a case, with its own generator, it may even work as an emergency x-ray facility. Our additional efforts connected with the Laboratory are to provide training of personnel and make available regular visits of their cardiologists to the Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute in Charlotte to maintain and update their skills. The procedures performed in the laboratory have helped identify several patients in need of open heart surgery.

“We are proud and privileged to support our colleagues in Belize and to help them offer advanced cardiovascular services for the benefit of their citizens,” said Michael Tarwater, Chief Executive Officer of Carolinas Healthcare System (CHS). “Our involvement in this momentous accomplishment is an outcome of CHS’s commitment to healthcare innovation and its quality cardiology programs through SHVI. We look forward to continuing our collaboration globally.”

First Open Heart Surgery in Belize

In July 2012, physicians from KHMH and from CHS performed the first open heart surgery in Belize. Adrian Coye, MD, Medical Services Director at KHMH and R. Mark Stiegel, MD, FACS, cardiothoracic surgeon with SHVI performed a coronary artery bypass graft on a 72-year-old Belizean man and a mitral valve replacement on a 56-year-old Belizean woman.

“Today is the best day, the best day. I don’t know how to describe it, but it means a lot to me because I’m so happy. I will be free,” said Emir Alfaro, the first open heart surgery patient in Belize City.

“This is a very special moment that has allowed everyone involved to make history in Belize,” said Dr. Coye. “Belizean patients should receive the same level of care as others worldwide, and we are thrilled to have reached this point in what we can offer for medical services in our country.”

Ongoing Support

Due to the ongoing support from the IMO Program, KHMH has the equipment and the medical expertise necessary to diagnose and treat patients with heart ailments in the country.

“This is an exciting time for the people of Belize, and we hope this achievement paves the way for future improvements in the country’s healthcare services,” said Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, founder and vice president of the IMO Program. “In collaboration with SHVI, we will continue our support to KHMH and emerging cardiology program to provide sustainable cardiac care in Belize.”

The IMO Program is also enhancing women’s and children’s healthcare in Central America with the installation of much-needed medical equipment, which most recently includes a breast cancer diagnostic unit and a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in public hospitals in Belize and Guatemala. The units opened in 2015 at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH) in Belize City and at Hospital Regional de Cobán. The diagnostic unit is the first in a Belize public hospital, making mammography and ultrasound services available to thousands at a low or no cost. The unit can screen, diagnose and upload tests for referrals to clinical providers globally. Read more about this project and its impact on the people of Belize and Guatemala.

Provider Training in Cardiac Care

Volunteer cardiology and surgical teams from Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute continue to lend their time and talents to assist the physicians of KHMH to perform cardiac interventions. This activity makes it possible for Belize’s public medical facilities to offer advanced cardiac services. IMO will continue to send teams until a local interventional cardiologist is able to perform catheterizations alone.

The Heineman Foundation of Charlotte and Carolinas HealthCare System are enhancing women’s and children’s healthcare in Central America with the installation of much-needed medical equipment, which most recently includes a breast cancer diagnostic unit and a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in public hospitals in Belize and Guatemala. The units opened last week at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH) in Belize City and at Hospital Regional de Cobán.