A lucky heart
By Swoan Parker
Beating on average 72 times a minute some two and a half billion times during a lifetime, the human heart fascinates me. At just 14 years old, Fabien Destine’s heart still has a long way to go. She was born with a hole in hers, but was one of the few lucky patients in Haiti to be accepted by the international medical mission to fix it.
Of the 40 hopeful Haitian children with serious heart problems waiting in line outside the Clinique Degand where the mission was based, only Fabien and ten others would be admitted for surgery. The others were deemed to have problems too complex to be fixed in Haiti. Some would be referred to other programs through Gift of Life International, and others would await the next mission. Many likely will never be helped.
I had learned of the week-long medical mission comprised of volunteer surgeons, doctors, technicians and nurses from France’s La Chaine de L’Espoir and the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. They would be coming to Haiti armed with equipment and supplies to perform lifesaving cardiac surgery on 11 children suffering from cardiovascular diseases (CVD). The Clinique Degand is the only facility in Haiti equipped for this type of surgery.
I once witnessed a kidney transplant, the most incredible thing I had ever seen. But now the opportunity to see surgery to repair a human heart just fascinated me.
Fabien, a shy teenager with a smile that lights up any room, was born with VSD, a hole between two chambers of her heart that allowed oxygenated blood to flow from the left chamber to the right, and back to her lungs. Her daily activities were limited because of this. She couldn’t run, play or enjoy many of the activities that her friends did. Even her one-hour walk to school and back was a challenge.
Among Haiti’s population of 10 million, health officials estimate there are around 10,000 cases of rheumatic and congenital heart disease. According to the World Health Organization, CVD’s are the number one cause of death globally, and over 80% of those deaths occur in underdeveloped and developing countries where access to health care leaves their problems either undetected or untreated. It may be that they can’t afford the treatment or the first doctor’s visit, or even the cost of traveling to there, because it is so far from home.
Excited about covering this story, I set out to identify a subject. Fabien seemed ideal, but little did I know the bumps in the road that awaited me. I wanted to understand her medical condition and was given the names of two local cardiologists in her file, but when I contacted them they told me they didn’t know a patient by that name.
Then there were issues just having access to Fabien inside her home, where she lives with her mother and stepfather. Her stepfather was not cooperative in allowing me inside, but luckily her real father was the one taking her to the doctor’s appointments. He always allowed me to accompany them. Some days when Fabien was supposed to sleep at her father’s house, I would go at 5:00 am to accompany her to school, only to find that she hadn’t slept there.
After Fabien was selected for surgery, her father was sent to the Haitian Red Cross to pick up blood for the operation. Unfortunately, blood is one of the many things lacking in Haiti. When her father arrived to pick up the blood, he was told that he wouldn’t be given any unless he brought several donors to the center. Frantically calling family and friends, he just couldn’t find enough volunteers. I even considered donating. Then, while on the hospital grounds near the Red Cross, I ran into a nurse I had photographed weeks earlier for a different story. With her help, in six hours she managed to get enough blood for the operation.
After the wonderful news that Fabien was accepted by the mission, and the work to acquire enough blood, there was still a question mark over the date of her surgery. I was scheduled to travel to the U.S. on April 19th, meaning I would likely miss the operation. The surgeons looked at all their cases to decide how to schedule them. On the evening of April 18th, they told me that she was scheduled to be the first operation the next day, just hours before my flight. I was relieved.
I reached the hospital at 7:30 am with a plan to leave by noon, grab my bags and head to the airport. At 9 am the surgeons made the first incision to reach Fabien’s heart. By the time I left at noon, they were stitching her chest closed.
I returned a week later to find a smiling and optimistic Fabien, who now talked of doing the things that other kids do. She continues to dream of becoming a nurse, or a famous baker like Marie Beliard, whose baked goods are a household name in Haiti.
(View a slideshow of images here)