ICHF sends teams of medical volunteers around the globe to perform free heart surgery on children with congenital heart defects in underdeveloped countries. In February, we had a Babyheart Mission to Santiago, Dominican Republic. One of our non-medical volunteers, Janie Odgers, accounts for the experience with the team, the local staff and the many lives that ICHF touches everyday.
I didn’t know what to expect as a non-medical volunteer traveling with a medical team to the Dominican Republic. The Babyheart Team was going to the Dominican Republic to perform cardiac surgery on children.
Our first day, we boarded the bus and headed to the hospital. We drove down “used auto parts row”, I had never seen so many bits and pieces for cars – fenders, springs, tires – in little shops lining the street. As we arrived at the plain looking hospital, across the street were little stalls selling hot food. Entering the hospital a very jolly guard greeted us and we headed down the hall and up the stairs. I wasn’t prepared for what I would see at the top of the staircase.
At the top of the stairs was a waiting area full of moms with children, quiet, and patiently waiting. But it was the eyes that I saw, the eyes who were pleading, begging, hoping that we were the team with the answers. I didn’t know if all of these families were here to see this team, I assumed they were, but I later found out it was the waiting room for many surgeries.
As we moved through the double doors into the unit, it was abuzz with interns, doctors, and nurses all getting ready for another day. We shuffled off to a small room with lockers, also housing three beds for children waiting for their respective non-cardiac surgeries (as the day wore on this room was also the post-op). In the corner behind the door the echo machine was rolled in and set up next to one of the beds.
We hustled off to the little changing room where we donned our scrubs, booties and disposable nurse caps (we looked like the lunch ladies from school days) and went back out to join Tom at the echo cardio machine. The first mom and child were waiting, and again it was the eyes I saw. The mom trying to be brave and the child worried at what Tom was going to do to them.
It was fascinating as we watched Tom and then Sri navigate the little children’s bodies to look at the problem areas as they explained to the local staff what they were seeing. Surgeries started the very first day, with the most difficult cases the first week. Children moved from surgery to ICU, to the step-down ward and then the ward.
The eyes started looking familiar as we traveled through the waiting room and down the halls, moms and dads started to come in and see their precious children who had gone through surgery and were in the ICU. But their eyes still looked deep into our eyes as we walked around, searching our eyes for answers.
By the end of the first week I was overwhelmed by the compassion this team had for the children, the children who might not have lived without the expertise of this team. They were performing two surgeries a day; maybe three and some children went to the cath lab at the other hospital. Lives were being saved everyday.
Once the children moved to the ICU, the nurses worked around the clock taking care of them. They also had a small army of nurses who were either in training or were nurses who worked at the hospital that came through the ICU daily. Sharing, teaching, advocating for the children – holding them, walking them, feeding them along with their nursing duties – everyone cared and were happy to be there.
I was a little surprised to find out the parents had to bring the food and juice in for the children, maybe diapers and blankets, I wasn’t sure. We had candy we handed out to the parents, they were always grateful. We found the local nurses were just as happy to have a little sweet too.
The children were amazing, getting up and getting dressed the day after surgery, or the second day, quickly moving from ICU to step-down ward, to the ward and home. And the results were phenomenal, on the end of the second week we saw a small group of moms with big smiling eyes and happy children who had had surgery the week before but had now gone home. It was truly miraculous.
At the end of two weeks, twenty surgeries had been performed and twenty children’s lives had been transformed. I had the opportunity to see an open chest with a beating heart, the heart of a child who was going to go on and probably live a wonderful life.
I count myself one of the luckiest people alive as I had the opportunity to witness this first hand and my life will never be the same. Everyday someone asks me how the trip was and I share the stories of the children and the amazing team who spent two weeks away from their families to save children who might otherwise have died if it wasn’t for the International Children’s Heart Foundation. And I say, “no matter what the differences are – race, religion, or color – all parents want the same thing, for their children to live” and who wouldn’t want this for everyone’s child.
Janie Odgers, Guest Blogger