Keeping the Beat

updated 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even now, more than a decade later, Bill Daem marvels at his ailing mother-in-law's transformation. Annie Kuntz had been disabled by heart trouble in the mid-'80s, and every effort, even getting out of bed, left her weak and breathless. Then, in 1986, doctors installed a battery-driven pacemaker just below the skin near her heart. Suddenly, "time backed up 15 years," says Daem (pronounced dame). "She was buying her own groceries, cooking again, and was fun to come and spend time with."

The device, like those implanted in half a million people worldwide each year, gave Annie Kuntz another two years of active life, and when she died at 86, her pacemaker was still going strong. For Daem, a retired Billings, Mont., firefighter, and his wife, Evelyn, 63, an ex-telephone operator, Annie's passing raised a practical question: In a country that recycles everything from cardboard to kidneys, could Kuntz's pacemaker be used again by another patient? Not in the U.S., Daem learned, where the FDA prevents such reuse, backed by manufacturers who cite the lack of quality controls and their concern over malfunction.

That logic didn't impress Daem, 63. "I'm a frugal person," he says. "When I found out how these things are wasted, I knew I had to do something."

Since then, Daem's grassroots recycling program, Heart Too Heart, has collected 1,500 secondhand pacemakers for shipment to Israel, South America and former Soviet bloc nations that don't restrict encore appearances as long as the device has 80 percent of its power. "There's no medical reason why they can't be reused," says Dr. Bernard Boal, chief of cardiology at the Catholic Medical Centers in Queens, N.Y., who now sends Daem's pacemakers to hospitals in Israel. "I think it's very sad that so many of these devices are discarded. I wish we had a thousand Bill Daems doing what he's doing."

Daem, a Catholic deacon, first hit upon his recycling plan after officiating at a funeral in 1994. The attending mortician casually mentioned the pacemakers he'd accumulated over the years, which he had removed because of their tendency to explode during cremations. Daem began visiting other funeral directors to solicit the devices, and word began spreading in industry newsletters. Before long, nearly 155 morticians were sending Daem used pacemakers. The devices, which cost an average of $5,000 when new and whose batteries last seven to 10 years, are cataloged by Daem and his wife and shipped to doctors who provide them, along with surgery, free to their patients.

In just four years, Daem's one-man crusade has turned into a community cause among Billings residents. Twice a week the retiree climbs into his '95 Mercury Grand Marquis and visits some of the several dozen volunteers who make up his self-styled "angel choir." And the goodwill has spread. Beyond Billings's borders, Paragon Healthcare in Little Rock has recently offered to sterilizê and repackage—gratis—each of the overseas-bound devices and to create an online catalog for distant doctors to consult.

Daem and his wife, who live on Social Security and pensions, welcome the help. Parents of four grown children and grandparents of 16 (and now, this September, great-grandparents of a baby girl), the couple share a three-bedroom, ranch-style home. By the front door a green metal ice chest, big enough for the packages that arrive regularly from mortuaries around the country, serves as a makeshift mailbox. On a hallway wall inside their home hangs a mounted secondhand pacemaker, donated to Daem by its owner's widow but deemed too old for reuse.

To keep his own heart healthy, Daem gets up at sunrise each morning for a four-mile walk. A full day on the run for Heart Too Heart often follows—a schedule that Daem does not seem likely to alter anytime soon. "If a pacemaker can do for someone else what it did for Annie," he says, "then how do you measure that?"

David Cobb Craig
Johnny Dodd in Billings

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