For the past 2 years, children have been leaving Haiti – 2 at a time a few times a year – to come to Akron Children’s to have their heart defects repaired. But for each of these life-saving procedures we’ve performed, there are hundreds of children back in Haiti waiting for their turn. In many cases, time runs out.
Since the devastating earthquake of 2010, Akron Children’s doctors have forged a relationship with St. Damien’s Pediatric Hospital, located just outside of Port-au-Prince.
Led by Dr. Jeff Kempf, director of Akron Children’s Oak Center for Global and Adoptive Health, doctors and nurses from the hospital travel to Haiti several times a year to care for children, deliver equipment and supplies, and, most importantly, train and educate the Haitian pediatric clinicians.
Located just 1,000 miles away from the United States, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Since the earthquake, the number of patients treated at St. Damien’s has tripled, an increase in 60,000 patients annually.
There are no pediatric cardiovascular surgeons in Haiti so children must travel far from their homeland, without their parents, to undergo heart surgery. It’s estimated that more than 5,000 Haitian children have congenital heart defects.
Dr. Kempf has been very involved in helping St. Damien’s develop a 10-year plan to launch its own pediatric cardiology program. The first heart surgeries there will take place in March under the direction of American surgeons.
Team from St. Damien’s travels to Akron
To learn how to diagnose and then care for those patients after surgery, a 7-person team from St. Damien’s has been visiting Akron Children’s during the past 6 weeks.
They’ve been spending quite a bit of time studying Akron Children’s pediatric intensive care unit.
In addition to participating in daily rounds in the PICU, the team has been doing medical simulations and practicing procedures, and even learning Lean Six Sigma principles and doing their own quality improvement project.
Perhaps the most valuable training was following 2 boys from Haiti – a 10 year old and a 2 year old – as they underwent heart surgeries. They observed pre-surgical diagnostic tests and physical exams, watched Drs. Phil Smith and Michael Spector perform the surgeries, and then stayed with the boys through their recovery.
Dr. Beatrice Fontalis has taken note of the differences between St. Damien’s and Akron Children’s, including many things most likely taken for granted here, such as ventilation equipment in every PICU room and CT scans.
Nurses play more active role in U.S.
After observing rounds in the PICU one morning, Dr. Fontalis noted the more active role that nurses take in the process.
“Here, nurses present the medical history, the vital signs and the labs,” she said. “When we do rounds, nurses participate but do not speak.”
She noted that St. Damien’s treats children with many more infectious diseases, such as malaria, pneumonia, meningitis and tuberculosis.
She looks forward to being able to offer the children of Haiti the same surgeries that are routinely available to all children in the United States.
“There are far, far too many kids in Haiti to fix,” said Dr. Kempf. “But this will be a good start. St. Damien’s should be ready to handle the more minor congenital heart surgeries, but the children with the more complex defects and in need of multi-stage surgeries will still need to travel to the United States.”
One good outcome of the earthquake was the mobilization of healthcare providers and humanitarians to help Haiti.
Dr. Kempf has worked to not only send delegations of Akron Children’s doctors and nurses to St. Damien’s over the past 4 years, but he also helps coordinate efforts with 6 other children’s hospitals across the United States.
Dr. John Clark, a pediatric cardiologist who has taken several trips to Haiti, said it can be emotionally difficult to be limited in what he can offer parents when he is at St. Damien’s.
“The need is overwhelming,” he said.
Local, regional and national chapters of Rotary International and Gift of Life gave a grant to cover the cost of bringing the Haitian clinicians to Akron Children’s, as well as paying $5,000 for each boy’s surgery – just a fraction of the actual cost.