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‘Ski to Africa’ benefits needy Rwandans

Fri., Feb. 11, 2011

Rwanda, a country in central Africa, is still recovering from the genocide that happened there in 1994. In 100 days, about 850,000 people were murdered – 20 percent of the population. Rwanda’s health care system was destroyed and 75 percent of the medical community was either killed or fled the country.

A group of medical professionals from Spokane and Coeur d’Alene is teaming up to help Rwandans rebuild their health care system. This spring, Healing Hearts Northwest will make its second trip to Rwanda. It’s an expensive trip, and Mount Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park is helping the group raise money to pay for part of it.

“Ski to Africa” is a fundraising event today at Mount Spokane. It’s a great deal on a day of skiing topped off by a gourmet Italian dinner. Tickets for Ski to Africa are available at the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol chalet. The package costs $45 per person and includes skiing from 1 to 9 p.m., plus dinner served in the chalet from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dinner without the turns is available for $35.

Last year, Healing Hearts Northwest performed 16 open-heart surgeries at King Faisal Hospital in Kilgali, Rwanda’s largest city. This year the team leaves in April for a two-week stay. Sending a team of surgeons, anesthetists and nurses, plus equipment and supplies, takes a lot of money.

“Last year we raised about $100,000,” said Sandy Goldberg, assistant director of Healing Hearts Northwest. “The staff spent about $120,000 out of pocket to get there. We used about $100,000 in donated heart valves, equipment and medicines. Shipping costs were $16,000 and we spent about $10,000 on medications.”

Goldberg’s husband is Dr. Hal Goldberg, a Spokane cardiologist who is the driving force behind Healing Hearts Northwest. Last year he told The Spokesman-Review that the group’s humanitarian mission is “our attempt to pay back a moral debt to a country ravaged by genocide.”

Rheumatic fever is a big problem in Rwanda. It starts with a case of strep throat. But Rwanda’s 10 million people only have a few hundred doctors. Strep throat isn’t treated and it leads to rheumatic fever, a disease that attacks organs and damages heart valves.

Goldberg’s team reviews a national list of patients. A screening team travels to Rwanda in advance to evaluate. The physicians narrowed down the list to 19 with five alternates. It’s a difficult process.

“They have to select patients that will have a good outcome,” Sandy Goldberg said. “Candidates can’t require a long stay in intensive care, because we have to make room for more. They have to be sick enough that surgery is absolutely necessary, but they also need to be well on their way to recovery by the time we leave.”

In the U.S., doctors train for eight years in residency. In Rwanda they’re thrust into service right out of medical school. Healing Hearts Northwest uses the surgeries as a teaching opportunity.

Dr. Goldberg’s goal is to help Rwanda build a cardiovascular program staffed by Rwandans. He also wants to develop a program for prevention and treatment of rheumatic heart disease.

Skiers and riders can pitch in by supporting Ski to Africa. Tonight’s menu features Italian dishes donated by Italian Kitchen, Luigi’s and Lasagna’s-On-Ya, salad and bread courtesy of Sysco Food Services, and wine or other beverages.

Bill Jennings can be reached at

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