Team Heart patients

Team Heart patients after receiving life-saving cardiac surgery

In advanced countries like the United States, it is rare for strep throat, a common and highly treatable infection, to lead to rheumatic heart disease, a life-threatening condition. In underdeveloped nations like Rwanda, however, rheumatic heart disease claims the lives of many children and young adults because medications, like antibiotics, and interventions are simply not available.

Each year, a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Massachusetts General Hospital, and other hospitals from across the United States, travel to King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, to perform heart valve replacements and repairs for Rwandan residents who would otherwise die without them. Led by Dr. R. Morton Bolman, Chief of Cardiac Surgery at BWH, Team Heart was formed in 2007 as a ten-year mission to provide cardiac surgical care for Rwandans with rheumatic heart disease, as well as medical and surgical training for physicians and nurses at King Faisal Hospital.

“This nation of more than 11 million people has less than one quarter of the number of physicians and nurses in our hospital in Boston,” said Dr. Bolman. “Team Heart’s ultimate goal is for Rwanda to have a sustainable cardiac surgery program at the end of our ten-year mission.”

For each of the annual mission trips, Team Heart travels with a group of 35-40 individuals, comprising surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, perfusionists, residents in surgery and anesthesia, pharmacists, and volunteer support staff. An “at home” support team at BWH also helps in many ways, from loaning surgical instruments and enabling the purchase of supplies at cost, to packing, shipping, grant writing, and fundraising. The highly-specialized cardiovascular team at BWH also provides remote support during each mission.

“This is really a multi-faceted initiative,” said Nurse Ceeya Patton-Bolman, Team Heart program coordinator. “We bring much-needed care and medical and surgical training, and, in return, we have the opportunity to see these children and young adults not only survive but grow and thrive. Over the years, we also have witnessed the tremendous progress among the surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare providers in Rwanda, who work alongside Team Heart members during our visit each year.”

Team Heart screens thousands of school-age children in Rwanda who are at risk for rheumatic heart disease to identify those in need of treatment. For those with early signs of disease, regular use of medications can help prevent heart disease from advancing.

“The patients we see are just so grateful for everything, from the technologies to the hospital to the people who make them better,” said Nurse Sara Stankiewicz, who has been with Team Heart for the past four years. “It’s a highly rewarding experience that brings me back year after year.”

– Jessica F

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