Before 80-year-old Dorothea Edwards died last month, she instructed her family to give her pacemaker to a patient who needed it. The recipient is doing fine. She's back on her feet — all four of them.
"Sunshine," a 9-year-old German shepherd with a weak heart, owes her life to Edwards.
After Edwards' death, her family learned that federal regulations prohibit person-to-person donations of pacemakers. So the family found another way to carry out her wishes. The pacemaker was given to the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine.
"We thought this was a great thing to do," says Edwards' daughter Mahla Swinford. "This is a way she's been able to draw attention to a need that a lot of people didn't know existed and to, hopefully, encourage others to donate."
Dr. Clay Calvert, a veterinary cardiologist, says 3,000 to 4,000 dogs in this country need a pacemaker every year.
"The potential of pacemakers" in dogs, he says, "is every bit as promising as it is in humans."
Expensive Propositions for Pooches
But only about one out of 10 dogs that needs one gets one because the lifesaving devices cost $4,000 to $6,000 apiece, making them too expensive for many pet owners. So veterinary schools depend on pacemakers donated by manufacturers and individuals.
Most vet schools perform the procedure, but not often. That's partly the result of a scarcity of available pacemakers.
Schools, such as the one at the University of Georgia, are also still working out protocols for disinfecting the devices in a safe and inexpensive manner. That means that, despite the need for pacemakers, the university is not seeking — in fact does not want to receive at this time — a great number of them from well-meaning donors.
Still, for Sunshine, such a donation has meant the difference between life and death.
Her pacemaker was implanted earlier this month and should keep her heart beating regularly for four to five years.
Surgeon Karen Cornell, who performed the procedure, says, "Sunshine can be as active as she wants to be."
'Better Than Normal'
So can Tucker, a 6-year-old Labrador retriever mix who received a donated pacemaker the same day Sunshine did. Tucker's owner, Mallory Herman, says the difference in her dog is "amazing."
She says he is not only back to normal, he's "better than normal." Herman says she "didn't know human beings could donate their pacemakers, and I think it's wonderful."
Sunshine's owners, John and Cindy Wren, say they are grateful for Dorothea Edwards' "generous gift," and the chance to spend more years with the dog they almost lost.