Dr. Sable with Victoria and Christian. Victoria had open heart surgery to repair Tetralogy of Fallot in February 2014. Sable says, “She is a completely different child, playing normally with no limitations. Her oxygen level has gone from 60 percent to 100 percent. Christian had relief of a blockage in his pulmonary valve by surgery last February by our team. He is now doing great and has so much more energy.”
“I am staring at a list of the names of over 100 Ugandan children with holes, blockages and leaks in their heart, knowing that for some, in a few short weeks, the dream that they and their families have been praying for will finally come true. These children will be selected to receive open heart surgery on our upcoming mission to Uganda in March, says Dr. Craig Sable, Director of Echocardiography and Telemedicine at Children’s National Health System and Professor of Pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine.
“This will be my 17th visit to Uganda, and the 9th time we have done open heart surgery there,” said Sable, a Potomac resident, who also serves as President of Heart Healers International.
Heart Healers, an organization of medical colleagues from institutions throughout the world, collaborate with the medical team at the Uganda Heart Institute at Mulago Hospital (the largest teaching hospital in Uganda) to facilitate the care of children with heart disease in Uganda. The mission of Heart Healers International is that “no child with treatable heart disease should be left behind.”
Congenital heart defects occur in 1 percent of all children — but only 7 percent of the world’s population has access to corrective heart treatment. There are nearly 6,000 children in Uganda in need of cardiac interventions. Previously, the only option for these Ugandan children was to go abroad for surgery, in most cases not an option because of the expense.
Open-heart surgeries the teams have performed have saved the lives of 500 children since 2007. Sable said, “One of the greatest joys in my life is to witness the transition of a child whose lips are dark blue from lack of oxygen and can’t walk across a room who then sends me a picture looking like all the other children playing soccer just a few short months after surgery.
“I stay up at night seeing the faces of these beautiful children and their scared, sad, but always kind and hopeful parents who look to me and our team to change everything. The cold hard truth is that many of their children will not live normal lives simply because they were born somewhere that does not have access to the type of care we take granted in the U.S. This inequity is the single most important driving force in motivating our team — it is why we do what we do in underdeveloped nations.”
“Going through the process of selecting is beyond humbling,” said Sable. “Everyone always asks me, ‘how do you pick which children should receive this precious gift?’ I can’t give a single answer. We look at urgency, likelihood of success, teaching value for the Ugandan team (critical for sustainability), how long a child has been on our waiting list…but we have to say no to more families than we say yes to. Every time we say no it makes us work harder, longer, and hope for strength to do more. We also try to focus on this: we are proud of what we can do. In total, about half of the kids on the list will get treated this year.”
HEART HEALERS INTERNATIONAL also supports the work of cardiologist Dr. Andrea Beaton, also from the Children’s National Medical System. With the help of Sable and their colleagues, she is performing ground-breaking research for the treatment of rheumatic heart disease (RHD) in Uganda. More than 250,000 children and young adults die from rheumatic heart disease each year — a strep-throat disease that is treatable and curable.
Beaton said, “This treatment is one of the most cost-effective ways that thousands of lives can be saved.”
Rheumatic heart disease was prevalent in the United States before the 1950s, but due to screening, treatment and prevention, the disease has been virtually eliminated from our country.
Sable’s grandmother had rheumatic heart disease and died a premature death because of related heart problems. He said, “Ironically, I am working to prevent the same problem in Uganda that my grandmother had.”
“We are also creating a sustainable cardiovascular program in Uganda,” said Sable. “We are teaching Ugandan medical personnel to make diagnoses, perform catheterizations and giving them the skills to perform procedures on their own. The transfer of skills and knowledge that occurs on our missions has resulted in the Ugandan heart surgery teams being able to operate on some kids by themselves. This is a far cry from the less than 5 percent that would get the care they needed when I first started going to Uganda in 2003, before we started building our program,” said Sable.
Last week while visiting Uganda, Sable met with the Rt. Hon. Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Prime Minister of the Republic of Uganda, and a delegation from the Uganda Heart Institute and Rotary International, to discuss support for congenital heart surgery and catheterization programs, as well as funding for rheumatic heart disease research. Other sources of funding for research, sending cardiovascular teams to underdeveloped countries, open-heart surgery, education and medicines include the Children’s National Research System, Rotary International, Gift of Life International, Larry King Cardiac Foundation, Samaritan’s Purse Children’s Heart Foundation, Zachary Blumenfeld Fund, Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Uganda Heart Institute, Cisco, Verizon, Medtronics — and many others.
Every $5000 that is donated provides life-saving surgery for a child. Penicillin is available for 25 cents a dose and an echocardiogram is $1. Heart Healers International needs funds from both public and private donors in order to eradicate rheumatic heart disease and to perform open-heart surgeries. Learn more at www.hearthealersinternational.com.