"...a world where children born with congenital heart defects have access to the surgical repair they need regardless of where they live." - HeartGift

Update:

Please scroll to the bottom for a video of HeartGift’s work. The video is a couple of years old, but the message is timeless.

Original Post:

It is an unfathomable tragedy when an innocent child dies, especially when such a death occurs simply because specialized medical care is not available, accessible or affordable in the child’s native country.

In particular, Congenital Heart Defects (CHDs), the world’s “most common birth defect,” affects more than 1 million newborn babies worldwide each year and is ranked as the leading cause of death from birth defects in the world. CHD exacts an especially frightening toll in developing countries where so many of these children are never diagnosed and oftentimes, even after such diagnoses, cannot undergo life-saving surgery, according to the International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF).

While conditions may have improved somewhat since a 2007–2009 World Society for Pediatric Heart Surgery Manpower Survey found that about 75% of the world’s population have no access to cardiac surgery, it remains a grim statistic and so does the mortality rate for these children.

Fortunately, there are organizations that are trying to “level the playing field” for the most vulnerable and innocent among us and that are doing a truly commendable, if not heroic, job.

One of them is “HeartGift.”

My first contact with this wonderful organization occurred a few years ago when our family had the privilege of “hosting” one such young child — beautiful 16-month-old Emily from Ecuador, along with her young mother — while she underwent HeartGift-arranged and sponsored open heart surgery to correct a life-threatening ventricular septal defect (VSD), also known as a “hole in the heart” at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas.

Sixteen-month-old Emily at Dell Children’s Medical Center in 2013, hours before heart surgery

But while our modest participation was immensely rewarding to us, it pales in comparison to the efforts, dedication and generosity of the surgeons, doctors, medical staff, HeartGift personnel and volunteers who for the last 17 years have saved the lives of, or improved and extended the quality of life for more than 300 children from 34 countries around the world, some as close as Mexico, others as far and remote as Mongolia.

Beautiful 1-year-old Saranzaya from Mongolia underwent life saving heart surgery at Dell Children’s Medical Center in March 2014 thanks to HeartGift

HeartGift was founded in June of 2000, beginning its noble work in Austin, Texas. It has since expanded its mission and vision by adding four additional chapters in Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and San Antonio.

HeartGift’s mission and vision statements are simple but powerful and inspiring:

HeartGift’s mission is to provide lifesaving heart surgery to children from around the world where specialized medical treatment is either scarce or nonexistent.

• HeartGift’s vision is a world where children born with congenital heart defects have access to the surgical repair they need regardless of where they live.

Partnering with medical facilities, practices and personnel, with non-governmental organizations around the world, corporations and hundreds of staff and community volunteers, HeartGift has been meeting, and exceeding, its mission and goals. HeartGift was recently awarded the prestigious United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Humanitarian Organization Award for “outstanding work of providing heart surgeries to children with Congenital Heart Defects.”

Of course, at the core of HeartGift’s capabilities are the medical teams — surgeons, cardiologists, pediatricians, dentists, anesthesiologists, and nurses — who perform the critical life-saving work and who contribute 100% of their professional fees and services resulting in millions of dollars of in-kind contributions annually.

For example, at HeartGift Austin, pediatric cardiologists Drs. Stuart Rowe and Karen Wright — both board members of HeartGift, members of Children’s Cardiology Associates and part of the MEDNAX National Group — do the yeoman’s work it takes to review 30 cases per year, ensure appropriate patient selection and to provide pre-surgery diagnosis and treatment — including arranging for pre-operative pediatric dental care when needed.

Once admitted to Dell Children’s Medical Center, some of the best pediatric cardiovascular surgery professionals in the nation take care of the healing, including the new Director of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery, Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen, who performs the life-saving surgeries.

After surgery, a team of 13 skilled cardiologists of Pediatric Cardiology of Austin and Children’s Cardiology Associates (part of MEDNAX) participates in the post-operative care of these children at Dell Children’s Medical Center.

While the average medical cost to repair a congenital heart defect runs about $200,000 per case, the costs for all services can be held down to approximately $25,000 per case, due to the generosity and goodwill of the individuals and organizations mentioned above.

Those funds — $25,000 per child — are raised through fund drives, corporate and philanthropic gifts and through the generous donations of caring individuals and volunteers.

Because of HeartGift, baby Emily, now a beautiful, healthy girl approaching her sixth birthday, is enjoying her young life to the fullest in her modest home on the idyllic mountain slopes of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.

Little Emily enjoying a full life in Ecuador

But despite all its commendable efforts, including the recent addition of HeartGift Chapters and the efforts of other similar organizations, tens of thousands of children born with Congenital Heart Defects in developing countries will not survive to celebrate their first birthday.

HeartGift believes that by adding new Chapters in other U.S. cities and pulling community resources together, by replicating its program in other children’s hospitals, by bringing more physicians and hospitals under its umbrella and by adding new referral sources in more countries, it can truly begin to fulfill its admirable and ambitious humanitarian vision.

As another Heart Month comes to an end, the work of HeartGift is in many ways just beginning. Please visit www.heartgift.org to learn more about its life-saving work and how you can support its vision of a world where children born with congenital heart defects have a fighting chance, one heart gift a time.

Photos by HeartGift and the author.

MEDNAX is a national medical group and health solutions partner providing pediatric services such as cardiology, neonatology, anesthesiology, maternal-fetal medicine, radiology and other heath management services through a network of more than 3,675 physicians across the entire country and Puerto Rico.

Dorian de Wind, Military Affairs Columnist
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