For many children born with heart defects, surgery offers the only hope for survival. But for children in developing countries, such care can be difficult, if not impossible, to find. Enter the Children's Heart Project, dedicated to providing "life-saving surgery for children with congenital heart defects in countries where appropriate treatment is extremely limited or non-existent." The program partners with hospitals in the United States and Canada — including Mayo Clinic — to provide much-needed care to children from Bosnia, Mongolia, Bolivia and Uganda.
Allison Cabalka, M.D., is among the Mayo Clinic staff involved with the program, which is run by Samaritan's Purse, an organization that provides "spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world." She's traveled with the group to screen children in their home countries, and also cares for patients who come to Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. "It's incredibly rewarding work," Dr. Cabalka says. "It's amazing to see the life of a child change."
Rodrigo, a 15-year-old from Bolivia, is one child whose life has been transformed by the program. A story on the Samaritan's Purse website says Rodrigo's mother "knew something was wrong" shortly after her son was born, but she "didn't live near any clinics or hospitals" and didn't know where to turn for help. When Rodrigo was 8, she had saved "enough money to take the 12-hour bus ride to La Paz" to see a doctor. But when they arrived, it was late and "the doctor was no longer available." With no money for a hotel room, mother and son "boarded the bus back home without having seen the doctor." Finally, when Rodrigo was 14, his mother was able to take him to visit a relative who had moved to La Paz. That led to an appointment with a cardiologist who "diagnosed him with a heart defect and pointed them to the Children's Heart Project."
In October, Rodrigo arrived in Minnesota, where Dr. Cabalka became part of his care team. "Rodrigo probably was within a few years of dying from his heart condition," she tells Samaritan's Purse. Now, he's making plans for the future. He "wants to play soccer and help his parents in their quinoa fields," things he'd only been able to watch from the sidelines before surgery.
In addition to providing health care, Dr. Cabalka and her husband, Jeff, have opened their home to Children's Heart Project patients during their stays in Rochester. Other Mayo staff, including Phil Fischer, M.D., a Mayo pediatrician, have done the same. In 2014, Dr. Fischer spoke to a group celebrating the 1,000th surgery completed through the Children's Heart Project. (You can learn more about that procedure, which benefited a young girl named Nomin Tumurkhuu, in this Rochester Post-Bulletin article.) Dr. Fischer told those at the celebration that healing hearts through the Children's Heart Project is "not a job of one person ... It takes a group effort. It takes families. It takes a team."
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