LOS ANGELES (March 6, 2000) ---- “No money, no care; it’s as simple, and sad, as that,” states pediatric cardiologist David Ferry, M.D., Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of the fate of Ecuador youngsters with life-threatening congenital heart disease. On March 10, Dr. Ferry and Cedars-Sinai cardiothoracic surgeon Alfredo Trento, M.D., chairman, division of cardiothoracic surgery, will travel with a volunteer surgical team to Guayaquil, Ecuador to provide care free of charge for more than a dozen youngsters with little other hope of survival.
A number of these children--including four-year-olds Cristian and Celso--are “blue babies” who will undergo surgical repair of Tetrology of Fallot, a fairly common congenital condition characterized by four defects. The most critical of these are a hole in the heart and an obstruction of blood flow to the lungs, which produces the cyanosis, or “blueness,” typical in victims of the disease. Also awaiting surgery is Mauricio, 8, who suffers from coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta, which obstructs blood flow away from the heart. Left untreated, this condition puts increased strain on the heart and can result in aneurysms and other serious medical problems.
“This work is very, very gratifying,” says Dr. Ferry, who for five years has donated his time and talents to Healing the Children, a non-profit humanitarian organization that sponsors medical trips abroad as well as foreign patients seeking care in the U.S. “As a physician, you’re reminded of why you went into medicine in the first place. Helping these children is a way to make a difference in the world.”
Congenital heart disease affects nearly 1 in 100 children, according to Dr. Ferry. In the U.S., access to appropriate medical care for such conditions seems a given. This is far from the case in Ecuador, a struggling country where financial resources and economic burdens dictate who receives treatment.
“If you have money, you can buy care,” he explains. “There’s no such thing as ‘free care’ in Ecuador. In a country of 12 million, you can imagine how many sick children there are, not to mention the hundreds who die every year with no care. You can quickly see the problems in a country of such size with an unemployment rate of at least 40 percent and the lowest per capita income in South America.” Each year, Healing the Children organizes medical trips and travel to “high need” countries to care for children and young adults free of charge. Volunteer medical and surgical health professionals--traveling at their own expense--treat patients and share their expertise with host country health professionals during procedures and in-service sessions. The organization also brings children and young adults to the U.S. for care at participating facilities such as Cedars-Sinai if treatment is unavailable in their own countries.
With previous Healing the Children trips to Ecuador and El Salvador under their belts, team members are preparing for a week’s work at Alejandro Mann Hospital in Guayaquil, the country’s most densely populated area. In addition to Drs. Trento and Ferry, the medical team will consist of anesthesiologist Keith Kimble, M.D., and intensivist Gary Goulin, M.D. Accompanying the physicians will be a profusionist, surgical and intensive care nurses, residents, a translator and Healing the Children representative Carl Boyer.
The medical team is scheduling two to three surgeries a day along with a number of heart catheterization procedures. More than 150 boxes of medical supplies and equipment--weighing 2,000 pounds--are already on their way to Ecuador, says Cris Emberton, director of the Healing the Children-California Chapter.
“We were fortunate to receive donations to help defray our costs,” says Cris, who helped found the organization in 1979. “We estimate the total value of services provided to these children at $1.5 million dollars, while our actual out-of-pocket costs will range from $20,000 to $22,000. This is a remarkable accomplishment, given that medical expenses for surgeries of this kind typically exceed $100,000 per patient.” When reflecting on lives changed through this cooperative effort, Dr. Ferry quickly recalls nine-year-old Danny. When he and Dr. Trento first met the youngster on their 1998 trip to Ecuador, Danny was so incapacitated by his condition--transposition of the great arteries--that he had to be carried upstairs for his appointment.
Following a successful surgery to correct the defect, the physicians received a note of appreciation from the boy’s mother: “Danny has not had any problems since the surgery. He is now in school and he is really intelligent. He says that when he grows up he wants to be a doctor and save a lot of lives like you guys do. Every time I see him running, playing and jumping with his other brothers I feel very emotional and I thank God for creating such good people as you.”
On a return trip to Ecuador, the physicians met Danny again--this time an active youngster in a soccer uniform. “We’re so fortunate to be able to make this kind of difference,” says Dr. Ferry of the experience.
Over the past 20 years, Healing the Children has helped 60,000 children from countries around the world to obtain much-needed medical care and treatment. The organization has 15 chapters that operate in 23 states and has established approved foreign contacts in many countries.
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