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Volunteer Story – Natalie Constantin

By Natalie Constantin, PICU Nurse Volunteer, Melbourne Australia

Volunteering had been on my mind for about a year before I heard about Novick Cardiac Alliance. Friends of mine were planning on going on a trip to Tehran with NCA, and I picked their brains about what they were expecting and what NCA’s priorities were. On their return, I learned working closely with local teams, educating and upskilling their practice were at the forefront of the organisation. Deciding that I wanted to take the leap and join NCA, I sent off an email and was then asked to join them on a trip to Russia.

Not much can prepare you for what to expect when working with NCA in another country, far outside of your comfort zone. Equipment is different, or simply not available. You don’t have all your diagnostic tools around. Your stethoscope, hands and eyes become your best friend. You learn to identify a change in your patient without blood tests and scans, simply because they are not resources that is readily obtainable. You work with staff from different educational backgrounds, who have not had the opportunity to be orientated into a busy paediatric cardiac surgery unit under the guidance of preceptors and educators, there to answer your questions and guide your practice. But, the truth is, children with congenital heart defects are born around the globe every day, and just because a state-of-the-art centre doesn’t exist in their home country doesn’t mean that they are any less deserving of care and treatment. NCA fills that void, meeting locals at the level they are at, guiding them in clinic, theatres and the ICUs.

Education at ground level is continuous, with NCA staff always eager to answer questions, offer guidance and work side-by-side with local health professionals. My skills as a paediatric ICU nurse were welcome, and I was immediately welcomed as part of the crew. The focus is on preparing local teams to continue what NCA has started, with the priority being that children, wherever they are born, will be able to receive treatment, against the odds that borders, resources and lack of funds may bring.

Volunteering with NCA has given me a new awareness of how lucky we are in developed nations. I will always consider it a privilege to have worked alongside NCA in giving children a new lease on life, regardless of where they may call home.

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.

Meet Narjis, our first patient of 2017!

Meet Narjis, our first patient of 2017!

Narjis was born in Baghdad, Iraq in October 2016. When she was about two weeks old, her parents Akar and Nor Maseer noticed she was breathing fast. They took her to the doctor and an echocardiogram showed she had two holes in her heart, an atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect. The doctor gave her medicines and told the family to return in 1 week. After this week, Narjis did not improve and the doctor said she needed surgery. Unfortunately, there is no hospital or heart surgeon available for babies in Iraq, so doctors advised Narjis’ parents to take her outside Iraq.

Advocating for his daughter, Narjis’ father Akar found a new doctor in Baghdad, but this doctor said her lung pressures were too high and surgery would now be impossible. Not losing hope, Akar found yet another doctor for his daughter, but still the same answer: his family must travel outside of Iraq for her surgery, and if they didn’t she may not survive until her 1st birthday. At two months old, Narjis barely weighed as much as a newborn baby because of her heart defect.

Still searching everywhere for a better solution, Narjis’ father saw an advertisement on Facebook from Al Kafeel Super Specialty Hospital in Karbala with the news that Dr Novick and his team would be coming to provide heart surgeries for children. Narjis’ parents packed their bags and drove to Karbala to meet our cardiologist on the first day of our arrival. Her heart surgery was scheduled for the next day.

Now 3 months old, Narjis received her life-saving heart surgery to close those two large holes on January 16th. She recovered quickly and was back in her mother’s arms on the ward within two days. Narjis’s parents are very thankful that their sweet little daughter is healing and eating better. Just two weeks ago they were fearful they may lose their newborn baby, and now they see her future is bright.

Little Hasen Is Why We Keep Coming Back To Iraq

Little Hasen Is Why We Keep Coming Back To Iraq

Hasen sits in his grandmother’s arms, bored and making a terrible fuss.

“He was born with three holes in his heart.” His grandmother tells us what we’ve already seen on the ultrasound scan. She was tired, weary. The strain of life and her grandson’s heart problems are nearly too much to bear. Hasen was supposed to have surgery later that day, but not long after our visit, his surgery was cancelled.

One of the most difficult parts of our work is assessing which children get surgery. Together with the local surgical team, we decide that because of the complex nature of his heart defects and surgery needed to fix them, Hasen will need to be in recovery for much longer than we will be in Iraq. We can’t perform surgery and leave him without the proper acute care while he heals.

Hasen is too sick to wait for our return in the new year. So a series of calls are made, and it is arranged that he will go to a neighbouring country to get surgery. It is the only option for Hasen, but comes with significant cost—physical, emotional, and financial.

Hasen’s father is a day labourer. He gets occasional construction work, but hasn’t had anything steady for a long time. When he leaves the country with his son to get treatment, his family will be without any income at all.

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Sweet Hasen reminds us again why we work the way we do. Providing heart surgeries for children simply isn’t enough—equipping the local community to care for the health needs of their children is essential. So children like Hasen can get care in their own country, near their families and support systems.

Life now, sustainability in the future—this is the kind of long-term change you bring every time you donate.

We’ve Made Amazing Progress, And We’ll Lean In To Do Even More In 2017

We’ve Made Amazing Progress, And We’ll Lean In To Do Even More In 2017

Leaning in—this is the common posture we see in every hospital where we work. There are always parents leaning in toward their children, either out of concern or the desire to comfort. But just as often we find ourselves leaning in toward patients, providing the acute care they need. Working beside local teams, we lean in toward each other, sharing crucial techniques and skills.

Every country we work in has different needs. Some heart programmes are young, and training runs the gamut from basic to complex. We work with young surgeons developing skills, cardiologists who don’t have a lot of experience with a wide range heart defects, and nurses who don’t yet have the experience to recognize patient symptoms and needed responses post-surgery. In some countries we focus on making out-of-date procedures current.

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During our recent medical trip to Basra, we worked with a local team that is established, efficient, and accustomed to working together. The surgical team are skilled, experienced heart surgeons who have already developed techniques in repairing diseased and damaged adult hearts. What they are now learning are the incredible complexities that come with hearts that didn’t develop in the correct way.

They are learning to look at the body’s systems in different ways—learning to assess how much can be corrected without affecting other organs, like the lungs, in negative ways. They need to learn an entirely different approach to the human heart, making repairs to allow it to function as it should, not necessarily to make it look like it should.

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In Basra, we are able to connect the dots for medical professionals who often have book knowledge but lack hands-on practice. We see where gaps in knowledge exist, and are immediately able to teach, coach needed skills, and follow-up with further chances to practice.

Many on our team have worked in Iraq for years. We know the value of training local doctors and nurses, in equipping Iraqis to take care of their own children. We will continue to lean in during 2017. This is the posture that will continue to make a difference, not only for Iraq’s children, but for the country.

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She Escaped ISIS, Now She Survived A Life-Threatening Heart Defect

She Escaped ISIS, Now She Survived A Life-Threatening Heart Defect

Jobs disappeared.

That’s what drove Yaqin’s family from Mosul. It was 2014 and the early days of ISIS in the city. Life was beginning to get difficult—the rules for living changed, tightened, but it was still manageable, except for the fact that paid work became scarce. Yaqin’s father couldn’t support his family, so they made the decision to leave.

It was a decision that saved his daughter’s life.

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We are clustered around Yaqin’s bed in the ward as her mother shares their story. Yaqin hasn’t cracked a smile once since we met her, but she is relaxed in the bed, shooting imaginary enemies on her mother’s phone. Every time we try to peek at the screen to see how she’s doing in the game, she slowly angles the phone so we can’t see it. She had heart surgery just two days before and her feisty attitude shows us she is clearly feeling well!

When her family left Mosul, they first headed to a displacement camp outside the city. Their stay was cut short though—the camp was bombed, which meant they were quickly forced to move again to find a safer place to live.

They traveled the full length of the country from Mosul in the north to Basra, at the southern tip of Iraq. The trauma of the last two years has taken a heavy toll on Yaqin. Between leaving Mosul, getting bombed out of a camp, establishing a new life in a southern city, all on top of being born with a serious heart defect—it was all too much. She lost all interest in eating. By the time we were able to assess her, Yaqin was extremely thin, had advanced symptoms of malnutrition, and needed medical care if she was going to survive.

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If Yaqin’s family hadn’t left when they did, they would have been trapped in Mosul—hemmed in when ISIS enforced border control. If Yaqin’s family had remained in Mosul, she would not have received the lifesaving heart surgery she needed to survive.

The UN estimates there are 10 million people in Iraq who currently need assistance because of the ongoing war with ISIS. There are millions of displaced families who need the very basics to survive. Little girls like Yaqin, with complicated health needs, get squeezed out.

But together we made sure she got surgery. Her heart is mended now.

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Yaqin spent her recovery time before being discharged having uninterrupted time with her mother–a rare treat for a girl with a little brother. She was eager to get home to enjoy her family—another simple, everyday miracle for a girl who escaped death twice.

How You Ended A Mother’s Desperate Search For Surgery

How You Ended A Mother’s Desperate Search For Surgery

Every mom’s heart aches when her child is sick. It’s so hard to see them suffer and not know what’s going on, or how to help.

For some moms it’s extra hard. When Yossef came down with the flu at two months old, he was taken to see a doctor. The doctor diagnosed not only the flu, but something much more concerning—there was a serious problem with his heart.

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Yossef’s mom is a pharmacist and works in a hospital. She saw her son suffering, and she knew exactly what was going on. Because she knew the Iraqi health system very well, and how few resources are available for children like hers, she panicked—how would she ever find the help her son needed?

Yossef’s parents took him to the two best heart centers in the country. Both visits were fruitless—they were told there was nothing that could be done for their son in Iraq—his condition was too complex. He would have to be taken to another country for surgery. This may as well have been a death sentence. Despite the fact that both his parents work, Yossef’s family didn’t have the money needed to take him anywhere outside the country for surgery. Instead they took him home and cared for him they best they could.

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Yossef was always sick, plagued with colds despite the fact that he was always kept inside. His mom gave him treatments at home, but of course they couldn’t address his underlying heart condition. One day while working at the hospital, she heard that a team of pediatric heart specialists would be coming to her hospital to perform heart surgeries on children with complex heart defects.

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Yossef was out of options, and that’s exactly when you made it possible for us to show up. We assessed Yossef, performed the heart surgery he needed, and even did after-care by the light of cell phones when the hospital power gave out.

We were able to give Yossef a solid base to build his future. And Yossef’s mom? She lost the weight of the world in that operating room.

And thanks to our amazing donors, it all happened inside Iraq.

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Before Surgery, Falah Was Falling Behind—Not Anymore

Before Surgery, Falah Was Falling Behind—Not Anymore

When Falah closes his eyes, he sees himself high above the clouds, in the cockpit of a fighter jet. When he imagines his future self, he is a pilot who helps to defend his country from the forces which seek to destroy.

But today Falah is laying in his hospital bed recovering from the surgery that saved his life.

Falah is a normal 16 year old. He loves to watch war movies and play first-person video games. His favourite soccer player is Christiano Rinaldo and he has favourite meals that his mom cooks (chicken or fish, please!).

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But in one important way Falah was always different from his peers—he couldn’t play. He was born with a heart defect that wouldn’t let him.

When he was very young, his heart defect was less of a problem. In fact, his family didn’t even know that he had a heart defect! But as he got older, his heart wasn’t able to keep up with his growing body. He was often tired. If he was out in the summer sun too long, he would pass out. Two years ago he was riding his bike home from school when he passed out on the side of the road. His family rushed him to the hospital. Falah complained to the doctor that his heart was racing and it hurt.

At fourteen years old, the heart defect Falah’s was born with was finally diagnosed.

School became more difficult for Falah, as his heart struggled harder to keep up. He was always so tired. Often he got dizzy, and couldn’t see the words in his textbooks. Sometimes he passed out in class. His tight-knit group of friends tried to help by raising up his legs to get more blood to his heart.

This year Falah was asked to leave school—he was too far behind his classmates.

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Falah’s routine changed. Instead of the daily pattern of classes, he now had a weekly pattern of doctor’s appointment. It was amazing that Falah was still alive at all—many children born with his type of heart defect don’t live this long without surgery. His doctor told Falah’s family that he wouldn’t be able to get the surgery he needed in Iraq—there simply wasn’t the necessary equipment or skilled doctors. They applied to the government to get surgery outside the country, but heard nothing after months of waiting. Falah’s mother was crushed with a deep sense of depression, worried that her son wouldn’t live long enough to get the surgery that could save his life.

And then one day, at one of his weekly check-ups, Falah’s doctor told him that there was an international team coming to perform the kind of surgery he needed—us.

We were able to perform the surgery Falah needed to live. He survived the long waiting that lead up to that day, and now he flashes a big thumbs up when we ask how he is feeling.

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Recovering in his bed, as we remove wires and tubes no longer needed one-by-one, Falah and his mom are able to think about his future. He talks about returning to school. His mom hopes that Falah can have a successful life—that he will go to college, and simply be an ordinary boy.

But the very first thing Falah plans to do when released from the hospital is to play soccer. He wants to play soccer with his friends, the same friends who cared for him when he passed out in class. Falah might not become a fighter pilot, but now he can fly on the soccer field, as fast as his legs will carry him, just like his hero Christiano.