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Local health care providers encounter resilience on mission

A reluctant traveler has a chance meeting with a doctor a half a world away and a medical mission is born. That’s the story behind Healing Hearts Northwest, a group of health care professionals from Spokane and Coeur d’Alene who travel to Rwanda to provide much-needed cardiovascular care.

In 2008, Spokane cardiologist Hal Goldberg was invited to Rwanda with a medical team from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I wasn’t what you’d call a willing, enthusiastic participant,” he said. But he mentioned the trip to his college-age son, who eagerly agreed to accompany him.

While in Rwanda he met Dr. Joseph Mucumbitsi, a pediatric cardiologist. Goldberg said, “It was a chance meeting – 15 minutes in a hallway.” But that meeting changed his life.

“When you open a door, you don’t know whether you’ll be swept in or blown out,” he said. Goldberg was swept in.

The plight of the Rwandan people moved him in ways he never expected. Goldberg said the country has been so decimated by the 1994 genocide that currently five cardiologists serve a population of 10 million. The need is unimaginable.

Upon his return he formed Healing Hearts Northwest, one of the arms of UJAMAA Medical Connections, a group of health care professionals who collaborate with international communities to provide health care service, education and training.

In February 2010, 45 health care professionals from Inland Northwest hospitals traveled to Rwanda and performed 16 open-heart surgeries. The group is currently preparing for a second trip in April, and this month the community has two opportunities to help their efforts.

Guests can enjoy a refreshing martini or two at Chaps restaurant on Monday or on Feb. 11, ski the great snow at Mount Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, followed by a delicious Italian dinner. These two fundraisers will help equip the team traveling to Rwanda this spring.

Registered nurse Michelle Deardon went on the first trip, and she’s eager to return. “It was a fantastic experience,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in African cultures and wanted to go there and do a medical mission.”

Goldberg warned the team of the difficulties they would face like oxygen that stops running in mid-surgery and intermittent electricity. “It’s like sending a MASH unit half way across the world. It’s like going back into the 1950s,” he said.

But Deardon relished the challenge of heading up the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. “The people are beautiful,” she said. “They are so curious about us, but they are absolutely just like us. It showed me how small the world really is.”

In addition to working in a less than high-tech environment, the Healing Hearts team faced the obstacle of a language barrier. Most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda. While the staff at King Faisal Hospital in Kilgali does its best to translate, Goldberg said trying to explain open-heart surgery to patients with no frame of reference for the procedure can be daunting.

Brook Henriksen, an RN, will also return in April. She experienced the challenges Goldberg spoke of. “It’s hard work,” she said. Simple things medical personnel take for granted here, like beds that can be raised or lowered, or bathrooms in the patients’ rooms, don’t exist in Rwanda.

She said the first trip was “almost beyond description. To see these people who would be dead in a matter of months without surgery – their gratitude is beyond belief.”

For the team, giving up their vacation time and purchasing airfare to help those in need is worth the sacrifice. “If you’re willing to give of yourself the rewards are so much more than what you give your patients,” Henriksen said.

This year, the volunteers from Healing Hearts Northwest plan to help 19 patients. Their screening team recently returned bringing echocardiograms and case histories with them. While the team primarily focuses on heart valve replacement and repair, they also plan to treat several pediatric patients with congenital heart problems.

Medical equipment and supplies have been donated by companies and hospitals across the country, but the need is still great. Shipping and travel costs are formidable, hence the upcoming fundraisers.

The ultimate goal of Healing Hearts Northwest is to create a sustainable cardiac surgery program at King Faisal Hospital. “That’s Dr. Mucumbitsi’s vision,” Goldberg said.

The once reluctant traveler is eager to return to Rwanda. “The people grabbed me,” Goldberg said. “Having lived through the genocide, they are still so positive about the future.”

Deardon agreed. “They’re such a resilient people. I think we learn more from them than they learn from us.”

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