Heart surgeons help save young lives abroad

December 12, 2008 7:12:51 PM PST
Nearly 20 years ago, a small group of Bay Area doctors set out on a mission to save the lives of babies and children from a country we once considered our nemesis. In 1989, doctors from the then Soviet Union knew little about pediatric heart surgery. In this report, we salute the men and women of heart to heart who broke through the iron curtain to help teach their colleagues how to save little hearts.

Heart to Heart video taken in the Samara region, 534 miles southeast of Moscow, shows Russian mothers who wait patiently for an operation to treat a potentially fatal heart condition. The procedure is the only chance their babies have of leading a healthy life.

The video shows Bay Area doctors discussing one of several difficult operations with their Russian colleagues. Dr. Gary Raff is a pediatric cardiac surgeon at UC Davis Children's Hospital. For two weeks a year, he and other Bay Area doctors volunteer their skills.

This partnership between American and Russian doctors did not happen overnight. It has been nearly 20 years in the making with Dr. Nilas Young in the lead.

"They were really not exposed to contemporary western types of surgeries, particularly cardiac surgery for children," says Dr. Young.

So these Bay Area surgeons began training senior doctors in Russia and they, in turn, have taught others physicians, nurses, and technicians in regions throughout that country.

"Heart to Heart should not be judged by the amount of children we save while we are there, but by the amount of children that our colleagues save when we are not there, because we are only there two weeks a year really," says executive director Josie Everett.

Heart to Heart has been providing aid to Russia since 1989. This team of medical professionals has saved the lives of nearly 7,000 Russian babies.

It all began when the Soviet press reported on a Russian child whose life was saved by Dr. Young in the Bay Area. Shortly after, the former minister of health invited Dr. Young to come save more lives, this time on Russian soil.

"The hospital buildings themselves were very poorly constructed. The interiors were falling apart. Things like oxygen lines coming out of the walls, suction lines, none of those things were in place," says Dr. Young.

In 1990, ABC7 News traveled with them to St. Petersburg to give our viewers a first-hand account of the lack of advanced training and resources Russian doctors faced. Heart to Heart doctors brought with them thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment to perform these operations.

But today things in Russia are different. For one, there is a free market society.

"Luckily there is more money in Russia and that's a good thing because it does take a fair amount of equipment to do open heart surgery and give good post-operative care to a new born baby," says Everett.

Everett says in the past 20 years, Heart to Heart has been able to replicate the St. Petersburg cardiac surgical center in Samara and Siberia. A fourth center may soon be up and running in the southern part of Russia. The goal is to cover all seven major regions of the country.

"We're looking at a fourth and so next thing you know, we'll hit all seven hopefully," says Dr. Young.

ABC7 salutes the doctors of Heart to Heart for 20 and maybe 40 years of saving young lives.

To learn more about Heart to Heart, visit www.heart-2-heart.org

If you know someone we should salute, drop us an e-mail here.

Load Comments