Dec. 21, 2022

UCalgary cardiac program saves thousands, creates sustainable change

Guyana Program to Advance Cardiac Care celebrates 10 years of support
Debra Isaac in Georgetown, Guyana
Debra Isaac in Georgetown, Guyana. Project 7 Media Group

It’s been a decade since images of infants with life-threatening heart defects drew Calgary cardiologists Drs. Debra Isaac, MD, and Wayne Warnica, MD, to get involved in cardiac care in Guyana, a developing country in South America.

Faced with trying to care for patients with inadequate equipment and local caregivers who didn’t have the opportunity to undergo specialty training, Isaac and Warnica felt compelled to help people in the tiny country, who suffer from some of the highest rates of heart disease in the world.

In 2012, the physicians co-founded the Guyana Program to Advance Cardiac Care (GPACC). Their efforts were supported by the Cumming School of Medicine and the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, which provided equipment and funds to support the project, and numerous Calgary-based experts, many of whom have used their own holiday time to help. The Guyana Program to Advance Cardiac Care program has also benefited from a number of donors over the years, including significant contributions from the Rotary Club of Olds.

“Our goal has always been to create a solid base for cardiac care in Guyana, to create sustainable change,” says Isaac, a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences. “We are proud of what GPACC, with the help of many volunteers, has accomplished.”

GPACC’s successes are vast. Before GPACC, there was no consistent access to cardiac diagnostics and no facility or expertise for monitoring and managing cardiac patients in Guyana.

Now the program provides resources in the country’s largest public health-care facility, the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation, located in the country’s capital. These include a cardiac intensive care unit, outpatient heart function clinic, cardiology clinic, in-patient ward cardiology service, active echocardiography and treadmill lab, and a cardiology electronic patient database to help manage patient records and track patient care.

Over the years, GPACC has helped provide more than 100 cardiac surgeries and a similar number of cardiac catheterizations. Thousands of patients — both paediatric and adult — have been treated by volunteers from around the world.

Karen Then works with nursing candidates

Karen Then works with nursing candidates.

But simply parachuting in to treat patients was never the goal. The dream was always to create lasting change for the Guyanese through a world-class health-care training program.

That goal has also been achieved. In the past decade, dozens of Guyanese health-care providers have been educated through the program, including nurses who have received nursing certification through the GPACCs. Headed by Dr. Karen Then, RN, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing and a nurse practitioner, the program, with support from the CSM’s research fund, the Libin Institute and Rotary International, teaches nurses the special skills needed to care for critically ill heart patients.

Over the years, many Guyanese health-care providers have trained for short stints in Calgary, and two Guyanese physicians, Drs. Michael Chin, MD, and Terrence Haynes, MD, completed cardiology residency at the CSM and the University of Toronto respectively, thanks in part to GPACC.

The program has been life changing for all involved.

Wayne Warnica and patient

Wayne Warnica and patient.

“In a country where it’s not uncommon to see people in their early 30s suffer from heart attacks, GPACC has been a very important initiative,” says Warnica, a retired adult cardiologist and CSM emeritus professor. “We wanted locals to gain the expertise needed to train the next generation of health-care providers, and we are getting close to that now. It’s very humbling.”

Isaac agrees, saying the difference at the hospital from her first visit in 2011 to deliver a portable echocardiogram machine to today is vast.

“When I first arrived, I knew there was no point in leaving the equipment in Guyana because no one knew how to use it,” she says, explaining today the hospital has a well-trained team and the resources required to ensure the Guyanese receive the critical care they need.

Isaac, who has visited the country more than 30 times, is proud of the legacy created by GPACC and is very grateful.

“We are so thankful and humbled by the many volunteers who have been part of this life-changing work,” she says. “This has truly been a team effort.”

Dr. Robert Rose, PhD, deputy director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, congratulates the team on its success and notes outreach is an important part of the ethos of the institute.

“We are proud of the work of GPACC and the difference the team has made in the lives of the thousands of patients who have been impacted over the last 10 years,” says Rose. “In Canada, we have one of the best health- care programs in the world, and it’s important that we give back to others.”

Dr. Todd Anderson, MD, dean of the Cumming School of Medicine and former Libin Cardiovascular Institute director, said the institute provided early seed funding to the project because it aligned with its mission and vision.

He says the work of Isaac and Warnica, and the volunteer efforts from other members of the institute, has been inspiring.

“I extend congratulations on the 10th anniversary of the Guyana Program for Cardiac Health,” says Anderson. “The team led by Drs. Isaac and Warnica have transformed the health-care delivery of an entire culture and saved countless lives. It has been remarkable.”

Learn more about GPACC

Guyana Program to Advance Cardiac Care timeline

Debra Isaac is a clinical professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Medicine at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. She is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. 

Wayne Warnica is a UCalgary emeritus professor and retired member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. 

Robert Rose is a professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is the Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s deputy director and holds the D. G. Wyse/Libin Cardiovascular Institute Professorship in Cardiovascular Research.

Todd Anderson is a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences and dean of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He is the former director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Enhancing global partnerships is an overarching goal of UCalgary’s Global Engagement Plan. We aim to transform our institution and how we engage globally by focusing on strategic partnership development, faculty-driven initiators of international activities, incentivized activities, building capacity and sustainability.

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