Cardiac Alliance has been featured on ShareAmerica, a platform produced by the US Department of State. Our story has been shared to all the US Embassies worldwide. This particular story can be translated into seven different languages. Read the article on ShareAmerica to learn more about our life-saving work in war-torn areas.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Jordan Campbell- A writer and filmmaker travelled with us to Tobruk, Libya. His story was recently published in National Geographic Adventure. You can read the whole article below. With your help we can continue to support our projects in countries like Libya.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.