Greenwich-based nonprofit Heart Care International enjoyed its first ever summer reception with supporters Monday night at the Millbrook Club and they were joined by a special guest.
Claudia Maria Sarai Tujab of Tactic, Guatemala, is one of hundreds of children to receive life saving open heart surgery from the Heart Care International (HCI) team of volunteers and she was on hand for the event to share her story.
Now approaching its 20th anniverary, HCI was founded under the leadership of Riverside resident Robert Michler, who also serves as co-director of the Monteflore Einstein Center for Heart and Vascular Care. When Dr. Michler led a team of volunteer health care professionals to Guatemala to perform life-saving heart surgery on 25 Guatemalan children in 1994, he hadn’t committed to a long-term plan, but when his peers contacted him asking when the next mission was, HCI was formed.
Operating out of Greenwich’s Second Congregational Church, the organization is now dedicated to providing expert pediatric heart care in several developing countries and helping medical personal in these countries to expand their level of expertise and treatment. HCI commits at least five years to each host country, establishing long term relationships with local hospitals, nonprofits and professionals.
“This is something special where people, not governments, but people in different countries are working together to help one another. It really shows us, and shows me that at the very basic level we’re all human beings, we all have needs, we all yearn for a better life,” Dr. Michler told the Post. “We look to protect our children, nurture our children and to make them healthy, and Heart Care International, in a very small but impactful way, does this.”
Though HCI began its work in Guatemala, it has since expanded to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Peru. Volunteers make several mission trips each year, treating dozens of children and offering direct training and workshops for host hospital staff. Additionally, Heart Care International provides scholarships for medical professionals in the host country to continue their education in the United States or at other appropriate sites.
Mission trips last several weeks, with volunteers remaining in the host country so long as children under their care still require treatment. The latest mission took volunteers to El Salvador in May, where they performed 11 heart surgeries at San Salvador’s Benjamin Bloom Children’s Hospital. Since 2011, HCI has successfully intervened in more than 200 cases.
Claudia Maria Sarai Tujab is one of the earliest success stories to come from HCI. Dr. Michler administered her open heart surgery 20 years ago during HCI’s second mission in Guatemala. Ms. Tujab was diagnosed with a heart murmur as an infant and though her parents struggled to pay for the best treatments, surgery seemed like a non-option due to a lack of resources. Later, the family was told that she should have received surgery prior to the age of two, but by the time HCI arrived in Guatemala, she was already six. Fortunately, through the work of HCI, her life could be saved.
A letter sent by Claudia’s mother, Lucky, and translated by the organization described the swirl of emotions she felt as her daughter was treated, from seeing a sonogram utilized for the first time by HCI volunteers, to the caring demeanor of the nurses.
“She has recuperated completely and has not even needed medications. She has been able to perform all normal activities without a problem,” the elder Ms. Tujab wrote. “I wish to give infinite thanks for returning our happiness for living, you have returned life to Claudia and have taught us to share what little or much that we have with others.”
Now 20 years removed from the procedure, Ms. Tujab says she still remembers parts of it. Specifically, she recalls the sweet smell that came with the anesthesia before the surgery. Volunteering nurse Betsy Tirado explained that the smell came from bubble gum that staff would attach to the gas mask to prevent cover the scent.
Ms. Tirado, who also works at the Children’s Hospital of New York, was integral to Ms. Tujab’s attendance at the reception. Her father reached out to Ms. Tirado earlier this year, having come across the contact information of the HCI nurses that had treated his daughter. A hectic series of communications made Ms. Tujab’s trip from Tactic, Guatemala, to Greenwich possible in just a few weeks. With her, she brought the teddy bear she had been given just before her surgery, still intact decades later.
In the coming year, Heart Care International plans to expand its missions to Kingston, Jamaica, and Chiapas, Mexico, while also continuing commitments in Peru. For more information and details on volunteering or donating to HCI, visit Heartcareintl.org.