Missions Double for Heart Foundation


Children around the globe in countries that do not have the medical resources available here in the U.S. are getting a helping hand from The International Children’s Heart Foundation, a local organization targeting congenital heart disease.

The International Children’s Heart Foundation this year will perform nearly 900 surgeries, a number that has doubled in the past two years.

(Photo Courtesy of International Children’s Heart Foundation)

Since its inception in 1994, the foundation has conducted Babyheart missions to provide care for more than 6,000 children. This year the foundation will perform nearly 900 surgeries, a number that has doubled in the past two years. Most of the children range from newborns to 3 years old, but the program also does surgeries on some older patients, when necessary.

“Everything you can do to help children is noticed every day, not just once in a while,” said Terry Carter, foundation executive director. “The work that our medical teams do is invaluable. It allows the kids to have normal lives for the first time, and it relieves the stress load on their families.”

This year, the foundation will make 30 trips to countries on five continents, including in the Ukraine, Belarus, Iraq, Libya, Honduras, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Each trip costs between $35,000 and $60,000.

Approximately one in every 100 children born in the world will have a heart defect, and right now there are 6 million to 7 million children worldwide waiting for surgery. The goal of the foundation is to save the lives of children, while also assisting medical professionals in impoverished areas to become more knowledgeable and self-sufficient in order to provide excellent care for other children in the future.

Dr. William Novick, a pediatric heart surgeon from Memphis, participated in his first mission to Croatia in April 1993 and decided he wanted to create an organization that would be an official charity devoted to sending volunteer medical teams around the world to provide surgical correction of congenital heart defects in as many countries to as many kids as possible without any cost to the families.

In July 1994 the International Children’s Heart Foundation was officially established and incorporated, and the first Babyheart missions were conducted.

Novick is currently on a Babyheart mission to Kemerovo, Russia, in the heart of Siberia, where the high temperature is 45 below zero.

“We work with the ministers of health or the equivalent thereof in countries that are either underdeveloped or under-resourced for providing these services to kids,” Carter said.

The medical teams generally travel for a minimum of two weeks at a time to a particular geographic area. The 13- to 16-person teams consist of cardiac surgeons, pediatric anesthesiologists, perfusionists that operate the bypass machines and adjust the temperature of children prior to and during surgery, operating room and ICU nurses, critical care cardiologists, and respiratory therapists – the majority of which volunteer their time and skills for the missions.

The most common defects seen are ventricular septal defect and atrial septal defect, where there are deficiencies in the walls separating the heart’s chambers, said Dr. Christian Gilbert, the foundation’s associate medical director of surgery. Gilbert did his first Babyheart mission as a volunteer in December 2008 and then began working for the foundation full time in January 2009. He now goes on 14 to 15 Babyheart trips each year.

“The foundation is growing in an exponential fashion. The demand for the help and services of the ICHF has exceeded our capacity to provide care. We can only provide services when there is adequate funding,” said Gilbert, who stressed the importance of philanthropic donations to the ICHF cause. “With a sizable grant we could expand our coverage, hire more staff and meet the needs that are going unmet right now because of funding conditions.”

The foundation’s annual operating budget is $6.3 million, the majority of which comes from donations. More donations mean more children will get the surgeries they need.

“We’re getting to the point now where there is so much demand that we are in three different places in three parts of the world simultaneously,” Carter said.

Next year, the foundation anticipates breaking its record for most Babyheart trips in a year with 40 planned missions, and Carter says that number could rise, depending on requests from particular countries.

“We hope to return to Egypt in 2013, and we are evaluating Macedonia as a possibility for next year, as well as a couple of new sites in Russia,” Carter said.

The foundation provides all of the medical supplies and medical equipment needed for each visit.

“That’s a pretty monumental effort in itself,” Carter said. “We have to determine what the medical team will need based on the types of surgical procedures they will be performing, and all of that has to be matched up and sent ahead of time so that when the medical team hits the ground they are ready to pursue the surgical schedule and get to as many kids as possible.”

The ICHF also works with local professionals at each destination to help them become more self-sufficient and provide improved care for future patients.

“We work with medical and health care professionals in each area, and we work out educational and training programs so that locals can learn the specialty aspect of cardiac surgery and recovery from cardiac surgery,” said Carter, who explained that it usually takes three to six years for some areas to establish independently run programs.

In the future the foundation hopes to establish as many as six centers of excellence strategically placed around the world to serve larger geographic populations.