Health & Fitness

Saving young, Haitian lives is their mission

Dr. Beatrice Fontalis, center, observes as cardiovascular surgeons Dr. Philip Smith, left, and Dr. Michael Spector perform surgery on an 11-year-old Haitian boy with a heart defect at Akron Children’s Hospital.  Dr. Fontalis is part of a medical team from Haiti here to observe hospital operations so that similar surgeries may be performed in Haiti with the assistance of American doctors.
Dr. Beatrice Fontalis, center, observes as cardiovascular surgeons Dr. Philip Smith, left, and Dr. Michael Spector perform surgery on an 11-year-old Haitian boy with a heart defect at Akron Children’s Hospital. Dr. Fontalis is part of a medical team from Haiti here to observe hospital operations so that similar surgeries may be performed in Haiti with the assistance of American doctors. MCT

Dr. Beatrice Fontalis watched intently as a surgical team at Akron Children’s Hospital fixed the heart of a young boy from her homeland.

At the pediatric hospital where she works in Haiti, cardiac procedures aren’t an option.

Though routinely performed in the United States, operations to close holes in hearts or repair other congenital defects are impossible in Haiti because the country lacks a pediatric cardiac surgeon.

“We have a lot of children who need surgery, and most of them die because they don’t have heart surgery,” Fontalis said.

Since 2012, Akron Children’s Hospital has been fixing heart defects in children from the western hemisphere’s poorest country a couple of patients at a time.

But rather than continuing to bring a few children from Haiti to Akron each year, Children’s now is training Haitian medical workers how to care for patients before, during and after heart surgery at their own hospital.

Beginning next spring, volunteer pediatric cardiac surgeons from U.S. hospitals will travel to Haiti to perform heart surgeries on Haitian patients at St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, where the staff is getting ready to provide the needed supportive care.

Surgeons will be able to complete 10 to 15 operations during each weeklong medical mission trip, said Dr. Jeff Kempf, an emergency medicine physician who serves as director of the Office of Pediatric Global Health at Akron Children’s. Kempf is leading the effort to help St. Damien develop its pediatric cardiac surgery program and volunteers regularly at the Haitian hospital.

The long-term goal is to train a pediatric cardiac surgeon who will work full-time in Haiti, he said.

Fontalis is part of a seven-person team of St. Damien’s doctors, nurses, a pharmacist, a biotech engineer and an administrator who were in Akron with the support of a nearly $67,500 grant from Rotary International. Through the grant, a team from Akron Children’s also will travel to Haiti next year to offer additional on-site training and advice.

“I’m going to work in the pediatric intensive care unit when we go back,” Fontalis said. “We can teach other doctors and nurses about … the heart surgery. It will be very helpful.”

The Haitian visitors have been participating in simulation training and watching the care of two boys from Haiti who recently underwent open-heart surgery at Akron Children’s.

Since 2012, eight Haitian children have come to Akron for life-saving heart surgeries through the partnership with Gift of Life Northeast Ohio, the local version of a program affiliated with Rotary International. Akron Children’s has agreed to perform the surgeries and provide the necessary aftercare for $5,000 per child — an amount that’s a fraction of the tens of thousands of dollars the hospital typically bills for such complex medical care.

Ultimately, however, more children will benefit when a cardiac surgery program is developed at Haiti’s pediatric hospital, said Ken Fogle, chairman of Gift of Life Northeast Ohio.

Along with assisting in getting the Rotary grant, Gift of Life helped find unused medical equipment from U.S. hospitals for St. Damien’s program.

“We’ve got to stop doing one kid at a time and get in-country skills,” he said.

The training, particularly in the area of pediatric intensive-care services, will benefit children with other problems as well, Fogle said.

For Marie Lourdie Chery, a nurse at St. Damien, her visit to Akron Children’s is also her first trip to the United States.

She said she has been particularly interested in spending time with the heart patients in the pediatric intensive care unit after their surgeries “to observe everybody, what we do in the days after.”

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