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Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center nurses, left to right, Michelle Dearden, Lauran Gilbert and Sandi Kessler are part of a medical team that will conduct heart surgeries in Rwanda. (Colin Mulvany)
Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center nurses, left to right, Michelle Dearden, Lauran Gilbert and Sandi Kessler are part of a medical team that will conduct heart surgeries in Rwanda. (Colin Mulvany)

Medical team taking expertise to Rwanda

45 doctors, nurses slated to perform 15 heart surgeries

In their own way, a team of a 45 medical professionals from Spokane will embark on a mission of medical and moral repayment when they travel to Rwanda later this week.

The troubling inaction of the United States during a 100-day genocide in the central African nation 16 years ago remains vivid for Dr. Hal Goldberg, a Spokane cardiologist who has used his talents of medicine and persuasion to help make the trip happen.

The team leaves Friday and will perform heart surgeries on 15 Rwandans during the next two weeks. The medical mission also unites staff from the Spokane area’s hospitals at time of heated competition and suspicion.

“We have basically asked people to take time out of their own lives to help others,” Goldberg said. “In some ways, this is our attempt to pay back a moral debt to a country ravaged by genocide.”

The 1994 massacres killed 800,000 people and decimated Rwanda’s medical system. About 75 percent of the nation’s physicians were either killed by marauders or fled for their lives to neighboring countries. Many have not returned.

Now the country has just 225 doctors – including two cardiologists and no surgeons – attempting to serve 10 million people.

Rwanda’s emergence as a nation of peace, healing and most importantly, hope, is a marvel, Goldberg said. But there is much work to do.

Most of the surgeries will be performed on people with rheumatic heart disease, a condition that has been largely erased in the United States, said Dr. Leland Siwek, a renowned cardiac surgeon with Northwest Heart and Lung Surgical Associates who will join the mission.

The disease begins with undiagnosed cases of strep throat, a common bacterial infection among children. But in countries without enough doctors, children with sore throats are not high on the list of patients needing care. Strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever, which damages connective tissue, including heart valves. Repairing the valves or replacing them with mechanical devices will be the job of Siwek and other surgeons and nurses.

Goldberg and the team’s nurses also hope to begin an educational outreach program to encourage parents to bring their children to the doctor if they suffer a sore throat. If strep throat is diagnosed it can be quickly treated with penicillin.

The effort is named Healing Hearts Northwest, and the surgeries will be performed at King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

The local heart team is part of Ujamaa Medical Connections, which has been sending other physicians to Rwanda, such as Dr. Pam Silverstein, a Spokane obstetrician and gynecologist who trained nurses how to best handle high-risk pregnancies.

Ujamaa, which means extended family in Swahili, has hosted Rwandan doctors in Spokane for training.

The heart team has been working for months to raise funds to buy medical supplies and offset travel costs. Equipment and many of the materials have been donated by hospitals and medical equipment companies.

One successful effort has been the collection of reclaimed, sorted and saved medical supplies and equipment no longer used in regional clinics and hospitals, but nevertheless useful for medical missions.

Each month, volunteers put the supplies into boxes.

Sister of Providence Rosalie Locati, the director of mission at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, calls the collection a medical-supply candy store.

“Those going on medical missions may come in and take any of the items that can be put to good use,” she said.

When the number of items reaches a critical mass, they are boxed and shipped to a warehouse in Lacey, Wash., where the materials are then put into cargo containers and shipped to other countries.

Sometimes the timing is fortuitous. Two weeks prior to the Haitian earthquake, the hospital shipped a container to the country as part of its routine. It arrived off the coast shortly after the quake. When the port reopened, longshoremen unloaded the supplies.

“Whether it’s Rwanda, Haiti or El Salvador, the donation of people’s time and talents is a treasure,” Locati said. “The people in this community can be proud that we are a world people, that we are willing to help.”

Members of the medical team traveling to Rwanda are on their own time, many using personal vacation days.

“We’re just excited to be a part of something so meaningful,” said Sandi Kessler, a nurse on the team who has been organizing supplies and support for the trip.

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