Heart Care International touches lives

Greenwich’s Heart Care International has a heart — in more ways than one.

The 21-year-old nonprofit provides critical heart services to children in underdeveloped countries — visiting Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Peru and saving more than 1,000 young lives.

In late September, the Heart Care team left for Chiapas, Mexico, one of the country’s most poverty-stricken states. Once again, the organization sent 35 to 45 pediatric cardiac professionals with donated supplies, medicine and equipment for two-to-three-week tours. Most of the supplies come from organizations such as AmeriCares in Stamford, but if not enough are received, Heart Care purchases the materials. The team will then screen children who are in need of critical care and provide them with necessary treatment.

“When we come down, it’s basically soup to nuts, everything you need to conduct one of these mission trips to save these children’s lives,” says Amy Weinstein, marketing/operations consultant for Heart Care. “We bring down supplies and, if there are extra supplies, we leave everything with the host country.”

The work has several aspects — meeting with local officials, conducting life-saving surgeries and educating the host countries’ professionals to ensure continued care.

Heart Care first makes a commitment to a country by meeting with medical workers, government leaders, clergy and other nonprofits to discuss the development of a pediatric cardiac program. If they agree, then Heart Care makes a minimum five-year commitment to provide medical treatment and educational training for the host country.

“Our goal is to train the medical professionals,” Weinstein says. “One way is that we go down there for a number of weeks out of the year and stand side-by-side with professionals to show them what we’re doing and train them. Another way is we host a lecture series. We have our professionals training and educating their medical professionals. We’ll have nurses, for example, come in and train in all aspects of the highest nursing quality care.”

GETTING STARTED

In underdeveloped countries, children born with heart defects are unlikely to receive the treatment to prolong their lives.

“Because there’s so many remote regions in these countries and because there is so much poverty, there are so many children who succumb to (death) each year,” Weinstein says.

Heart Care was founded in 1995 by Robert Michler, MD after he traveled to Guatemala to perform heart surgery a year prior. (He is the surgeon-in-chief of the health care system, chairman of the Department of Cardiographic and Vascular Surgery, chairman of the Department of Surgery and the Samuel I. Belkin-endowed chairman and director of New York’s Montefiore-Einstein Health Center.)

“We serve and our mission is to educate and train,” Michler says. “So I went to Guatemala with a team of nurses, doctors, surgeons and respiratory therapists who operated on 25 children, and it was a great success.”

After Michler came back, he received requests to return to Guatemala for extended work. Soon after, Heart Care was born.

“What an impact it had seeing Dr. Michler standing over this tiny infant performing intricate surgery,” says Christopher Combe, a member of the organization’s board of directors. “After four hours, Dr. Michler would come out of the operating room and would tell the parents of these children that their child was now going to live a normal life because of these surgeries.”

More than 100 volunteers make up the Heart Care International team, including heart surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, perioperative nurses, pediatric intensive care unit nurses, respiratory therapists and an administrative staff. Members donate their vacation time to participate in these unpaid missions, coming from hospitals all over the country, including Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Heart Care is also developing a program known as Vision 20-25 for the medical communities in underdeveloped countries to communicate with professionals in the U.S.

“The infrastructure is all online and it’s the technology that we’re going to communicate with the host countries — the process for getting the scans, the MRIs, the records,” says Weinstein. “All the medical records are very cumbersome and with the Internet and the eve of communication, we are developing a technology infrastructure to develop a fluid way for partners to upload the information to a fluid place. Medical professionals from this country are able to monitor what’s going on with the patients, 24/7, 365 days.”

This technology will be in the form of a user-friendly system, linking medical professionals on all cases.

“If they don’t have the technology, we’re going to help them get it,” Weinstein says. “It takes pediatric heart care to a whole new level. Once again, more children will be saved. Their lives will be changed.”

A LIFE FOREVER CHANGED 

In its second year of work, Heart Care touched the life of Claudia Maria Sarai Tujab, a now 26-year-old Guatemalan woman. Born in 1989 with a heart defect, her life expectancy was only a few years. In 1995, Heart Care traveled to Guatemala and Tujab was one of the many children who received surgical care.

Recently, she was reacquainted with the Heart Care team.

“We brought her to the United States a year ago in June to meet a lot of the Heart Care medical professional team that had helped her,” Weinstein says. “She was so engaging and charismatic, she asked if she could become a member of the Heart Care team, so she came with us to El Salvador in May.”

Tujab acted as a liaison between the parents of infants undergoing care and would comfort the parents with tales of her own personal story.

“She would pray with them and hold the parents’ hands and she would act as a social worker to help these people during the time when their children were being operated on,” says Weinstein. “It’s truly remarkable.”

For more, visit heartcareintl.org

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