Blog : Happyheart

Volunteer Story – Erin Serrano

PICU nurse Erin Serrano recently joined our team on her first medical mission trip to Ukraine. Erin shares her unique story about why she began her career as a pediatric cardiac nurse and how volunteering with Novick Cardiac Alliance was a dream her entire life.

My journey to pursue a career in the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit began the day I was born. Just a few days after birth, I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and underwent multiple cardiac surgeries and procedures to save my life. Volunteering with Novick Cardiac Alliance to help patients and families with similar stories as my own wasn’t a choice, it was something I knew I had to do. It was my destiny. 

Coming to Ukraine and stepping into a healthcare system that I knew nothing about was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. After just a few days, I realized that leaving my comfort zone was more than worth it. From the first day that we arrived at the hospital, I learned just how resourceful the staff members had to be, considering their limited medical supplies, equipment, and medications. Imagine being a parent of a child requiring cardiac surgery and you are responsible for providing part of their medical supplies because the hospital simply cannot obtain enough. I was astounded to see the local nurses using resterilized supplies. These supplies would most certainly be thrown away after one use in the United States. I realize that we take for granted the abundance of simple supplies and they are precious items in developing countries like Ukraine. 

Despite the obvious language barrier that exists, Cardiac Alliance has been successful in educating the Ukrainian medical team in everything from basic ICU care to the most complex cardiac surgeries. To be a part of that education process was the most rewarding part of my trip. 

One out of every 100 babies is born with a congenital heart defect and CHD’s are the most common cause of infant death among birth defects. If I have helped just one nurse better their practice while caring for these patients, then I know my time spent was worthwhile. I certainly hope I can volunteer with Cardiac Alliance again and again. Thank you NCA for allowing me to be a part of your incredible mission and to the entire Ukrainian team for teaching me more than I could have ever imagined. 

Giving Narges The Gift of Time

9 year old Narges was born in Iraq with a severe heart defect.

When Narges was an infant, her mother noticed  she would become blue when eating or crying. She took her to several doctors throughout Iraq, but nobody could give them any answers. Finally a doctor told them that Narges had a heart defect, but nothing could be done in Iraq to help her. They were encouraged to find help outside the country.

At one year of age, Narges’ parents used all their money to take her to India for medical treatment. Here she was finally given a proper diagnosis. She was born with a complex heart defect, single ventricle with mitral atresia. Even in India, Narges was deemed inoperable.

For years, her family watched their beautiful daughter remain blue and ill, which progressively worsened over the years. Narges’ parents took her to several hospitals in Iraq, hoping that someone could help their daughter. Through the strife of war in their country, Narges’ mother never lost hope. She persevered in her search for a heart surgeon that would take her daughter’s case. Finally, she saw an advertisement from Al-Amal Hospital in Nasiriyah Iraq that announced the arrival of an International pediatric cardiac team that was offering heart surgeries.

Dr Novick met Narges in clinic at Al-Amal Hospital in October 2017. At that time, Narges’ blood oxygen levels were only 70%. Her heart was severely enlarged and the improper circulation of blood inside her heart had been causing lung damage for years. Dr Novick prescribed medication to help lessen some of the damage and requested that Narges return to the hospital for evaluation when our team returned the following month.

In November, Narges and her family returned to Al-Amal Hospital to met with our team. Narges’ heart was still severely enlarged and her only option was a palliative surgery that would prevent further lung damage. The hope was that this surgery would improve her quality of life. Dr Humberto Rodriguez performed this surgery and Narges recovered quickly in the ICU. Our team was impressed by her determination, asking to get out of bed the day after her surgery. She wanted to get cleaned up and loved having her hair brushed and braided by nurse Emily. We witnessed the fight inside this young girl, and we understood where she gained her strength from, her mother.

Narges’ mother emotionally described how difficult it was to watch her daughter struggle to breathe, and how she fought to find proper treatment. Both of her parents really understood the severity of their Narges’ heart disease. They were so thankful to our team for offering her this chance to simply have more time in life.

Sometimes, we cannot completely repair a child’s heart, especially those children who have lived for many years with complex defects. This is why we aim to educate cardiologists and pediatricians to diagnose and plan treatment for these children when they are young. For now, Narges will continue to go to school and spend time with her family. This gift of time is what matters most to the families who are barely grasping at hope.

 

 

Over 1,000 Hearts Healed in Iraq

 

Dr. Novick with Ayad in Nasiriyah Heart Center

In August 2010, before the end of the Iraq War, Dr. Novick and his teams began traveling to Iraq. We believed that Dr. Novick’s vision to provide cardiac care and surgery to children suffering from heart disease was more important than politics, religion or where these children were born. Over the course of the past 8 years, we have worked in 6 hospitals located in 5 different cities throughout Iraq. In December 2017, we celebrated performing our 1,000th pediatric heart surgery in Iraq.

 

Mohammed – Our 1,000th child operated in Iraq

Mohammed was only 17 days old when he received his life-saving heart surgery from our team in Karbala, Iraq. He was born with Transposition of the Great Arteries and without surgery, the chances of him surviving to be one year of age was slim. Weighing just 3 kilograms, Mohammed’s heart was only the size of a strawberry. Cardiac Alliance surgeon, Dr Marcello Cardarelli and Iraqi surgeon Dr Ahmed Ebra worked together to perform this delicate surgery. Mohammed recovered over the course of two weeks in the ICU and is now home with his parents just outside of Karbala. Mohammed may be the 1,000 child, but there are still thousands more children waiting for heart surgery in Iraq.

 

Since 2010, we have expanded our programs across the country of Iraq, beginning in the north in Sulaymaniyah to the spiritual capitol of Najaf. In the south, we began pediatric cardiac programs in Basra and at two centers in Nasiriyah. Our program in Karbala, located in central Iraq, has flourished with a fast-learning Iraqi pediatric cardiac surgeon. It’s through our collaboration with these 5 centers in Iraq that we have been able to provide life-saving heart surgery for over 1,000 children in Iraq.

Novick Cardiac Alliance is the only organization providing pediatric heart surgeries in Iraq. We strive to fulfill the ever-growing list of children who require surgery to survive. Without our volunteers and supporters, we could not achieve this. Thank you for you continued support.

The World Loses Another Giant in Pediatric Heart Surgery

Dr. Francis Fontan

When receiving the news that Dr. Francis Fontan passed away earlier this week, Dr. Novick’s initial response was “Another giant in pediatric heart surgery passed from our midst.” Dr. Fontan is the individual who pioneered the development of the “Fontan” operation. The Fontan operation made it possible for those children born with one ventricle to have a chance to separate the “red” from the “blue” blood and lead nearly normal lives for many years. Dr Fontan’s contribution to the field of pediatric heart surgery cannot be over-emphasized as it is the final operation which nearly all children born with one ventricle receive thus providing them with a future free of the debilitating effects of chronic cyanosis.

Fontan Procedure

 

Dr. Novick reminisced about meeting Dr. Fontan.

“As a resident in cardio-thoracic surgery at the University of Alabama from 1987-1991 I was fortunate to meet Dr. Fontan on more than one occasion because of his professional and personal relationships with Dr. John W. Kirklin and Albert D. Pacifico. I will never forget my first encounter with Dr. Fontan. He was visiting Birmingham to work on the finishing touches of his sentinel paper with Dr. Kirklin, “The Perfect Fontan”. On the day I had the honor of meeting him I was assigned by Dr. Pacifico to start the second case of the day. As would have it, by design I am sure, it was a child who needed a completion “Fontan.”

As usual this required a redo-sternotomy, which we performed without difficulty. When I sent word to Dr. Pacifico that the sternum was open, I received an unusual response, “Proceed”, which meant he wanted me to lyse the adhesions and place the cannulation sutures to enable the patient to be placed on bypass. I knew that Dr. Fontan was in the hospital and might be visiting the operating rooms, so I was a bit nervous. Nonetheless we proceeded without incident. When I sent word again to Dr. Pacifico that we were ready for him to cannulate and place the patient on bypass, I was again greeted with “Proceed.” This response was totally unexpected as I had never placed a “Fontan” completion patient on bypass, and I was early in my residency. So, as I was placing the arterial cannula, Dr Fontan suddenly appears above the anesthesia screen and says ‘Good morning Dr. Novick!’ Well as fate would have it, I muffed the cannulation and could not get the arterial cannula in. I stopped and responded ‘Good morning Dr. Fontan, sorry I muffed the cannulation, could you please ask Dr. Pacifico to come now.’ Francis laughed and apologized for spooking me at exactly the time I had tried to place the aortic cannula. Remembering this encounter with Dr. Fontan reminds me of the importance of having a sense of humor even while performing challenging heart surgery.”

Francis Fontan, creator of the Fontan operation, actually considered his greatest accomplishment the formation of the European Association of Cardio-thoracic Surgery. He is truly an innovative leader in pediatric cardiac surgery and one of the main individuals responsible for the progress of cardiac surgery in Europe. The world will miss Francis, but we can never forget his tremendous contributions to the field of cardiac surgery, specifically pediatric cardiac surgery. His legacy to this world can be found in the thousands of adults living with Fontan circulation today. We imagine that he and Dr. John Kirklin are together now, perhaps discussing “The Perfect Fontan.”

Artur from Ukraine: Fighting for His Life

Artur is was born a fighter.

Artur was born on the 1st of September in Luhansk, the easternmost city of Ukraine. Luhansk has been under the control of the separatist rebel group since 2014, and is known as “Luhansk People’s Republic.” This city was nearly destroyed by the war in 2014 and many public services are difficult to obtain, including quality care at hospitals.

When Artur was 5 days old, his mother noticed he was breathing very fast and turning blue. She took him to the hospital in Luhansk but the doctors were unable to give a definite diagnosis and sent him home. Weeks continued and Artur’s mother became more concerned with her baby’s blue color. Again she went to the hospital and after several tests, the doctor thought he noticed something wrong with Artur’s heart. Finally the doctor in Luhansk called the Kharkiv Cardiac Center. This doctor sent a photo of Artur’s chest x-ray to Kharkiv pediatric cardiac surgeon Olga Buchevna and she recommended Artur be transferred immediately to Kharkiv.

 

Upon his arrival at the hospital in Kharkiv, cardiologist Daria Kulikova performed a echocardiogram and diagnosed Artur with Transposition of the Great Arteries, plus a tiny ASD and tiny VSD. This heart defect usually must be repaired within two weeks of age, and Artur’s was very severe. He was not getting enough blood to his body or brain, with oxygen saturation levels barely 50%. His surgery would be complicated. Luckily our team arrived three days later and on October 9th, Artur received his life saving heart surgery. Kharkiv pediatric cardiac surgeon, Olga Buchevna, performed this surgery flawlessly with assistance from Cardiac Alliance surgeon Kathleen Fenton. Artur recovered quickly in the ICU and was drinking milk two days after surgery. His serious facial expressions proved to us that this little boy has a strong will to survive.

There are babies like Artur around the globe, fighting for their lives, waiting for medical assistance to mend their heart defects before it’s too late.

 

Perfusion Without Borders Scholarship Winner

Each year, the American Society of Extracorporeal Technology offers a scholarship to one Perfusion student to travel on a medical mission trip with an organization of their choice. This year’s winner is perfusion student Kim Morris and she will be traveling with Novick Cardiac Alliance to Ukraine early next year.

Kim Morris, Perfusion Student, USA

Kim moved across the United States from Alaska to New York to pursue education in perfusion. From her experience, she has learned that “a successful perfusionist is reliant on gaining the trust of a room full of people that may come from completely different backgrounds. You treat your patient with your equipment and knowledge, but you also treat the surgeon and a room full of professionals with careful communication and a calm demeanor to ease a stressful situation.”

Several years ago, Kim was a medical volunteer in Ghana and from that experience realized she aspired to gain more personal knowledge to more directly help people in need on her next volunteer trip. Becoming a perfusionist was her answer. She now is feeling more qualified to utilize her skills to directly assist those in developing countries. Kim is excited to join Novick Cardiac Alliance as a perfusion student, honestly stating, “I’ve learned to participate in a highly skilled team to give a patient a permanent, life changing surgery.”

Kim volunteering in Ghana.

We look forward to having Kim join our team as a perfusion student in Ukraine!

Witnessing Sustainability in Libya

Two brothers, Four heart defects.

In 2012, we met Abdul, a Libyan boy who was born with four heart defects, called Tetralogy of Fallot. Dr Kathleen Fenton operated on Abdul alongside Libyan pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr Wejdan Abou Amer. Because his heart defects were diagnosed late, Abdul was very sick following his surgery and remained in the ICU for many days. Our team was scheduled to leave the country, but Dr Fenton changed her flight to stay and help the Libyan team care for Abdul. 

Abdul, 2012

In June, our team returned to Benghazi and met Abdul’s little brother Mohammed. Mohammed has also been diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot. His parents were devastated to learn their second son also had a life threatening heart defect. It is “life threatening” because he lives in war-torn Libya with limited basic health care available, let alone pediatric heart surgery. 

Mohammed, 2017

Since our team has been visiting Libya and educating the local Libyan medical professionals for several years, we are witnessing the magic our work accomplishes. Mohammed needs a type of surgical procedure that the local Libyan surgeon Dr Wejdan can now perform on her own! Dr Fenton collaborated with the Libyan team and determined that Mohammed’s surgery can be performed by Dr Wejdan after our team leaves the country. From our continued teaching, she has developed the skills to do this, and the ICU team has the skills necessary to care for a patient like Mohammed. 

Dr Wejdan and Dr Fenton operating in Libya.

Without our continued perseverance to travel to Libya, children like Mohammed and his brother Abdul would not survive. There would be no miraculous story to tell. 

And by the way, Abdul is now 6 years old and attending school! 

Cardiac Alliance’s collaboration in war-torn Benghazi brings sustainable healthcare to children

Reuters journalist Ayman al-Warfalli recently interviewed our team in Libya, where there are “more than 300 kids waiting for open heart surgery, maybe 400.” Cardiac Alliance strives to maintain our collaboration with the hospital in Benghazi to care for these children in need.

Read the Reuters article to learn about the desperate need for sustainable healthcare in Libya.

With your support, we can continue our education programs to save more children in countries like Libya.

Commitment to Sustainability

Commitment to Sustainability

 

Recognizing that congenital heart disease requires lifelong care, Novick Cardiac Alliance continues to return to our partner sites multiple times per year over several years, because of children like Ahmed.


Dr. Novick first met Ahmed in 2010, when he was 5 years old. Ahmed was born in Nasiriyah, Iraq with a complex heart defect. Similar to most tragic truths in the developing world, there were no doctors in Iraq that could help their son. Ahmed’s parents felt hopeless watching their little boy constantly out of breath and not gaining weight like their four other healthy children.
Then they learned that an American team was coming to the city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. Ahmed’s parents traveled over 10 hours by car in the hopes of finally giving their son a chance to receive the heart surgery he desperately needed. Dr. Novick performed Ahmed’s first surgery in August 2010 in Sulaymaniyah, alongside Iraqi surgeons. Ahmed recovered well after this surgery and was a healthy boy as he grew up in Nasiriyah. About a year ago, Ahmed began experiencing the same symptoms of heart failure, coughing a lot and often extremely tired. Now in 2015, there were Iraqi pediatric cardiac surgeons operating, but Ahmed’s condition was too complex for these novice Iraqi surgeons. Once again, Ahmed would have to wait for external aid. And once again, Dr. Novick came to the rescue.

Ahmed received a second chance at a healthy life when Novick Cardiac Alliance operated on him in Karbala, Iraq in January 2017. Ahmed was such a joyful boy to care for in the ICU. He was always in high spirits. His first time out of bed he danced and stomped around the ICU in pure joy to be alive. Every time we saw him on the ward, he wanted to tell us how well he was doing. Though we didn’t speak Arabic, we understood his fist in the air accompanied by a loud “roar” was his way of proving to us that his heart condition would not defeat him!

Children with congenital heart defects like Ahmed require continued follow up visits with a cardiologist. When a child is born with a broken heart, they can develop symptoms in the future, even if they’ve had surgery. Some children will need to have more than one surgery in their lifetime. This is why Novick Cardiac Alliance aims to educate the local medical team so that they can provide the necessary care for children like Ahmed.

You can help us to build sustainable health care solutions for children like Ahmed around the world.