SPOKANE, Wash. – A team of skilled surgeons and caregivers, mostly from Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, just returned to the Inland Northwest after their fourth surgical visit to Rwanda.
The 35 medical personnel and 10 volunteers with Healing Hearts Northwest use vacation time for the two-week trip and they pay their own way. Last month, they performed heart surgery to correct rheumatic heart disease on 14 women and two men.
In order to make the surgeries possible, Healing Hearts Northwest must ship about 6,000 pounds of medical equipment to Rwanda. There may be as many as 500-1,000 patients on a waiting list for the surgery, but the teams must choose candidates who not only need it most, but who are still healthy enough to recover from the surgery.
“The hardest decision, frankly - the one that puts the most stress on the team of the people who say, ‘You’re not going to have the surgery,’ because saying, ‘You’re not going to have the surgery,’ in a sense, is a determination that you’re going to die,” Healing Hearts Northwest Medical Director Dr. Harold Goldberg said.
Teams from Boston, Belgium and Australia perform similar annual heart surgeries in Rwanda as part of an ongoing partnership with Healing Hearts Northwest. But the cardiologists agree their effort is still not near enough to meet the need there. But now that the visiting surgeons have established an ongoing presence in Rwanda, the people there rely on them.
“I think after our first trip, they thought we had done a wonderful job but really didn’t expect us to come back, which is what happens a lot of times. People have all these good intentions of returning, but can’t,” Healing Hearts Northwest Assistant Director Sandy Goldberg said. “The more we go back, the more people are there waiting for us to get there.”
Healing Hearts Northwest’s ultimate goal is to eventually be able to hand these procedures over to the Rwandans so they can run their own heart surgery program. The Goldbergs said, with each trip, they see strides toward that. Rwandan nurses work side-by-side with the American teams. This last trip, the nurses have taken on more primary roles in the surgeries.