Thomas F. Khairy, 15, is the youngest person to ever be published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, he found out this astonishing accomplishment while he was on a school bus. But he couldn’t tell anybody, the news was embargoed.
"It was awkward,” Thomas told The Province. “I was screaming, and my friends were like, ‘What?’ And I couldn’t talk about it. I had to act like nothing happened. Everyone wanted to know.” Now he can share the good news.
The Montreal teen’s research on the re-sterilization and reuse of cardiac devices – pacemakers and implantable cardioverter – defibrillators (IDC)s was published in the prestigious journal in May 2020 and Thomas is listed as the lead author.
This didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took three years for all of this to come together. In 2017, Thomas who was only 12 at the time did a research rotation at the Montreal Health Institute (MHI) according to The Province. He was helping MHI electrophysiology technician Marie-Andrée Lupien on a long-running project that began in 1983 to send used cardiac devices to countries in Latin America to be reused in patients.
The cost of new devices is extremely expensive, according to Physician's Weekly; anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 for pacemakers and $10,000 to $18,000 for ICDs. That’s why harvesting and reusing these devices is very important for people who cannot afford them new.
She [Marie-Andrée Lupien] would take pacemakers sent [from] funeral homes that had been removed from deceased bodies, re-sterilize them, and send them to countries in South America where patients couldn’t afford a new one,” Thomas told The Province.
“I asked her if she knew how many lives had been saved [since the program started]. She didn’t know. So, I told her I was going to find out. She was so nice. She took me under her wing, and supervised everything. It became a project to make a database of everyone who had received re-sterilized pacemakers and defibrillators.”
Besides counting the devices – 1,748 in total – Thomas came up with the idea to see if it was safe to reuse the devices. While the concept of reusing pacemakers and IDCs was not new, there was no data on the infection rate amongst the people receiving them.
The researchers used a registry that the institute kept to track patient outcomes in the study, according to Physician's Weekly, to determine the rate of infection in the reused devices against a control group of Canadian patients who received new medical equipment.
Thomas and his team found that over a two-year period, 2 percent of the patients with the reused devices developed infections as opposed to 1.2 percent of the patients with the new ones. The ultimate conclusion of the study was that it is safe to reuse the re-sterilized pacemakers and ICDs. Besides researching the topic for the institute, it was a winning science fair entry too.
Still, not every successful study makes it into The New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, the team at MHI, including Thomas’s father who is a cardiologist at the institute told the young man not to get his hopes up.
As for Thomas, he is still processing this amazing achievement. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said. “I’m really happy for the whole team, for everyone who contributed to this. It’s not just an accomplishment for me, but for everyone.”
What does he want to do next? The Loyola High School senior is leaning to being a cardiologist. He told Physician's Weekly, “My first step would have to be to get into med school. I'm not even there yet.” With his credentials, that seems like a very likely occurrence.