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For some of the BWHers participating in Team Heart's sixth annual surgical mission to Rwanda, the life-saving care they deliver began before they even touched down in the African country.
On a connecting flight from Amsterdam to Kigali, Rwanda, Kevin McWha, RN, and Gita Mody, MD, acted quickly when a passenger fainted in first class. They placed a saline IV in the passenger's hand and revived him during the flight.
"We started helping people before we got to Rwanda, but when you're in the medical profession, you're always on duty," said McWha, a staff nurse in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit. "It's a moral obligation and the right thing to do. That's the essence of Team Heart, too. You help those who cannot access proper medical care because you really want to serve them."
Every February, Team Heart travels to King Faisal Hospital in the country's capital city of Kigali to perform lifesaving cardiac surgeries for people suffering from rheumatic heart disease. This year, nearly 40 volunteers from 13 states and nine medical institutions across the U.S. lent their time and talents for the mission and performed 16 heart valve surgeries.
Rheumatic heart disease, caused by untreated strep throat, can lead to severe and sometimes life-threatening damage of the heart valve. In the U.S., strep throat can be treated easily, but in Rwanda, poor access to medical care prevents patients from receiving proper treatment.
Rheumatic heart disease remains the largest cause of cardiac death in Rwanda. Though raising awareness can be difficult, meeting with key Rwandan government leaders is helping Team Heart take steps to address this challenge, said Ceeya Patton-Bolman, MSN, RN, Team Heart coordinator.
"We met with Rwanda's First Lady, who helped us move Team Heart's agenda forward in a crucial way," said Patton-Bolman. "We discussed prevention, intervention and early diagnosis efforts for next year's trip. The vice president and president of the Senate also met with us to discuss future education outreach through the country's existing networks, and that's huge progress for us."
During the eight-day trip, Team Heart performed two heart valve surgeries per day.
"I'm humbled by the talent we have, and the team worked exceptionally well together this year, from the nurses to the surgeons and anesthesiologists," said Patton-Bolman. "They were incredibly competent, efficient and confident."
For the first time in six years, BWH experts oversaw the procurement process of cardiac surgical supplies in Rwanda, which lessened the burden of shipping more than 3,000 pounds of equipment to King Faisal Hospital.
"With help from BWH experts, we were able to purchase supplies in Rwanda," said Patton-Bolman. "Being able to move forward in this part of the program has made such a positive difference in the care we were able to provide." In the past, some equipment, such as monitors and IV pumps, has been donated, while surgical instruments were loaned and brought back to BWH with the surgical team.
For patients and volunteers, Team Heart is a life-changing experience. Those who receive surgery are grateful, and that is often what touches members of Team Heart the most.
"Rwandans are beautiful people," said Susan Gabriel, RN, a staff nurse in BWH's Cardiac Surgery ICU, who has joined Team Heart for all six of its missions. "They take your hand and thank you from the bottom of their hearts. You're there for a real reason, and there's something special about that."
Without the surgeries, the patients would not have survived more than a few months, said McWha. "People were able to rejoin their families and their communities after recovery," he said.