Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Renowned Electrophysiologist elevates cardiac care in Ethiopia

Photo by Anteneh Aklilu

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Dr. Franck Halimi a distinguished Electrophysiologist specializes in the management of cardiac rhythm disorders in Paris and at the Private Hospital of Parly 2, Le Chesnay. As a former intern at the Hospital of Paris and a Clinical Chief at the University, he early on dedicated himself to Rhythmology.

He furthered his training with a Master’s degree in Sciences and several stays in the United States in renowned departments. With 20 years of clinical practice, he actively participates in the activities of Scientific Societies, including the French Society of Cardiology, the European Heart Rhythm Association, and the National College of French Cardiologists.

He engages in research projects, with numerous publications to his credit, particularly in the field of atrial fibrillation, and is involved in teaching and training young Rhythmologists as part of the Inter-University Diploma in Rhythmology-Cardiac Stimulation.

His professional work leads him to give numerous conferences in France and at international congresses, and he is regularly called upon for the peer review of scientific articles.

Dr Franck Halimi has dedicated is professional skills in the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias. He is well experienced in AF ablation therapies. ESC member, member of the French Society of Cardiology and of the French National College of Cardiology.

Recently he visited Addis Ababa for his fourth mission, at the Cardiac Center Ethiopia and St. Peter Hospital/St. Paul Hospitals that marked a significant achievement. This year, he successfully implanted 16 pacemakers and conducted 7 conventional catheter ablations. Notably, he performed ablations on two left-sided accessory pathways through transseptal approaches with his colleagues from Ethiopia.

Capital caught up with him in the midst of a surgery to talk about his impactful mission. Excerpts; 

Capital: What inspired your decision to provide free treatment? And what is the financial cost associated with it?

Dr. Franck Halimi: I have close relatives here in Ethiopia, which has always motivated me to contribute something meaningful. I felt a personal commitment to share my knowledge after working for many years in Paris. When I had the opportunity to meet the people here, I asked if I could volunteer and be of service. Since then, I’ve been connected with them and decided to dedicate one week of my life every year to give back and share what I’ve learned. It brings me happiness.

I’ve been fortunate in my professional life in France, gaining valuable experience and having access to various treatments. When I come to Ethiopia, where I’ve been visiting for about seven or eight years, it’s a way for me to give back. My wife was born in Ethiopia, and although she is French, her mother is Habesha, and they still live here in Addis. So, it’s a joy for us to come here and contribute. My motivation stems from a commitment to the people, knowing that I’m making a positive impact. Seeing the smiles on their faces and receiving gratitude from the families whose lives we’ve saved is more than enough reward for me. I don’t seek anything beyond that.

As for the financial aspect, for example, just in terms of pacemakers and leads, I brought over 5 million birr worth of materials. It’s probably even more when considering the catheter. However, everything is donated for free, and I don’t receive any payment. I do this solely out of a sense of commitment. In fact, I even pay for my own plane ticket.

Capital: How many years have you been working in this field, and what is the focus of your treatment?

Dr. Halimi: I have been working as an electro-physiologist for over 25 years in Paris, France. I work at a hospital and have a private practice. Additionally, I invest a lot of time in education, working with students and engaging in publications. As an arrhythmologist and senior electrophysiologist, I specialize in treating arrhythmias. This involves performing a lot of electrophysiology procedures, such as ablation. When I started doing ablations about 30 years ago, it was not as advanced as it is today. We didn’t have all the equipment and knowledge we have now. However, with the advancements in technology, performing these procedures has become much easier. Electrophysiology is now one of the most popular fields in cardiology in France.

Four years ago, I had the opportunity to join the team at Black Lion, CCC (Cardiac Central Ethiopia), and I embarked on my first mission. Since then, I have been coming every Christmas to spend a week with my friends here, bringing donated materials from the industry, and striving to save lives. It may not be much, but it’s what we can do.

Capital: Could you explain what electrophysiology entails?

Dr. Halimi: Electrophysiology has two main aspects. The first is pacing, which involves implanting pacemakers and defibrillators. In Ethiopia, many people suffer from cardiac diseases, and some of them have extremely low heart rates, like 20, 25, or 30 beats per minute, putting their lives at risk. These individuals are on waiting lists, coming from various parts of the country.

By implanting pacemakers, we can stimulate and restore the conduction system between the atrium and the ventricle, ultimately saving their lives. The second aspect of electrophysiology is diagnosing and treating tachycardia by inserting catheters into the heart. Until last year, no catheter ablations had been performed in Ethiopia. I was the first to conduct such an ablation, bringing the necessary materials, including donated pacemakers, which were provided by the industry free of charge. I volunteered for this mission and arrived with the pacemakers.

This is my fourth mission in Ethiopia, working at the Cardiac Center Ethiopia in Black Lion Hospital and St. Peter Hospital. Just two days ago, we implanted pacemakers, and yesterday we started performing ablations. We have completed two cases already today. The most recent one was quite challenging. It involved a young female student with arrhythmia originating from the left side of the atrium. We had to access the left atrium through a transseptal puncture, which presented its own difficulties. However, we managed to perform the procedure successfully, and the patient is recovering well.

Capital: How long have you been coming to Ethiopia, and how many patients have you treated?

Dr. Halimi: Over the course of four years, I have implanted approximately 50 pacemakers. All of these pacemakers were provided free of charge as donations from the industry. In France, I approach the industry and inform them about my involvement in volunteering in Ethiopia. They show great support for the project and provide pacemakers, leads, and catheters. Regarding electrophysiology, I have treated around 10 patients thus far. Last year, I performed the first-ever electrophysiology case in the country. I must emphasize that the equipment here is excellent. If other volunteers are interested, they can come to this facility, bring some materials if possible, and effectively treat and save patients’ lives. It is feasible, safe, and achievable. I also want to highlight that the healthcare professionals at Black Lion Hospital and St. Peter Hospital are true heroes. They work tirelessly, giving their best despite the limitations in accessing new technologies and supplies.  Nonetheless, they are highly skilled physicians.

Capital: Have you provided free treatment in any other African countries besides Ethiopia? If so, which countries?

Dr. Halimi: In the past, I have worked in North Africa, and I have also been to La Reunion in France. However, currently, I am exclusively focusing on Ethiopia. I have a special attachment to this country because, as I said, my wife was born in Addis, which creates a personal connection for me. I have a deep appreciation for the Ethiopian people, and I try to give back by sharing my knowledge and capabilities.

Capital: What were the challenges you faced when you first came to Ethiopia, and how did you overcome them?

Dr. Halimi: Working in a different country with different settings, in an unfamiliar cath lab (catheterization laboratory), and with people I didn’t know posed significant challenges. Additionally, there was a responsibility on my part to provide safe treatment to the patients. It was definitely a bit daunting, especially when performing complex procedures like the transseptal approach for ablation. I needed to have confidence in my abilities while also ensuring patient safety. It was a delicate balance. However, I believe in my strength and determination to overcome these challenges.

Capital: What are your plans for the future?

Dr. Halimi: First, I aim to continue saving lives by bringing materials and conducting electrophysiology procedures. However, it’s not enough. I want to use social media platforms like LinkedIn to encourage other electrophysiologists to come to Ethiopia and contribute their skills. I want to say, “It’s your turn, you can work safely here, come and make a difference.” There is already an Australian team that started coming regularly after learning about my work in electrophysiology. They realized it was feasible. So, I will share the connections and information for those who wish to volunteer.

Secondly, I plan to return to Ethiopia in the future. And most importantly, my primary objective is to train local healthcare professionals. I want to find a committed fellow, a young cardiologist, preferably, and offer them the opportunity to receive training in the United States or France. Once they acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, they can return to Ethiopia to lead and operate the cath lab. They can also provide training to other students. I will always be there to support and assist them, particularly with challenging cases. My ultimate goal is to empower Ethiopian healthcare professionals to independently carry out these procedures. That would be the best outcome, and I will continue to support them whenever needed.

Capital: What is the purpose of training Ethiopians in these new medical procedures?

Dr. Halimi: The primary purpose is to address the significant lack of access to certain medical procedures in Ethiopia. Previously, there was a shortage of pacemakers, and electrophysiology procedures were not performed in the country. By training Ethiopians in these procedures, my aim is to save lives through pacing and bring the knowledge of electrophysiology to Ethiopia. This way, local healthcare professionals can continue providing quality care and expand the range of treatments available to patients.

Capital: How do you select the individuals who receive treatment? Is it a critical process or random?

Dr. Halimi: I do not personally select the patients. The Cardiac Center Ethiopia and St. Peter’s, where I work, are public centers. They have waiting lists for procedures such as pacemakers. Patients from all over the country are referred to these centers by cardiologists. There is no selection based on ethnicity or geographical location. It is a transparent process based on medical need and urgency. In fact, some patients travel long distances, even taking flights from places like Tigray, which is around 800 kilometers away, to receive treatment. The process is free of corruption, and there are no charges for the patients.

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