Chuck Barber, right, enjoys a moment with Luis Amarro, who had heart surgery in Greenville thanks to the Children’s Heart Project. Barber and his wife were pre-surgery hosts for the Bolivian families. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)
By Amy Adams Ellis
ECU News Services
Two Bolivian hearts were mended, and many local hearts warmed last month, thanks to a partnership between the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Vidant Medical Center and Samaritan’s Purse’s Children’s Heart Project.
Six-year-old Sebastian Viscarra and 15-year-old Luis Amarro traveled from La Paz, Bolivia, recently to receive life-altering surgery in Greenville. The two boys were participants in the Children’s Heart Project, an international relief project that matches up children who need heart surgery – but lack access to it in their home countries – with North American medical centers willing to donate their services. The project arranges for host families and an interpreter to accompany the children and their guardians, and furnishes round-trip transportation.
Dr. Charlie Sang
Both children suffered from a common congenital heart defect that in the United States is typically repaired at 3-6 months of age, said Dr. Charlie Sang, the ECU pediatric cardiologist who cared for the boys before and after surgery.
“Both children had a ventricular septal defect, which is essentially a hole in the bottom wall of the heart,” said Sang, who is chief of pediatric cardiology at Brody.
“The opening allowed too much blood to flow to the right side of the heart, causing increased blood pressure in the vessels of the lungs. If not repaired, the patients would have developed irreversible pulmonary vascular disease, worsening heart failure symptoms and premature death.”
When the boys arrived in early October, Sang said, “They couldn’t walk the block without getting tired.” Since the surgery, he said, “They will pretty much be able to do what normal kids their age do – and live long, prosperous lives.”
ECU pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Koh Takeuchi performed the surgeries. “In both children, we closed the hole by sewing a patch over it. The whole procedure takes three hours,” he said.
“It’s a procedure we do every day here.”
Sebastian, who lives with his mother and three siblings in a one-room apartment in La Paz, wants to be a policeman when he grows up. When asked if he was strong like Spiderman – the superhero featured on the watch he was sporting – he peered up sheepishly through long, dark eyelashes and said in Spanish, “I know I am.
His mother, Victoria Villca, said through the interpreter, “When I got the news Sebastian was chosen for the project, I had two emotions. I was very nervous and very happy. Sebastian is a blessed child to be chosen by this program. We’re very thankful for the medical staff, the host families, and every little thing that anyone has done to help us.”
Luis said he was scared when he first heard he was coming to the United States for surgery, because he didn’t know what to expect. “But I’ve been happy here,” he said. “I’m happy about my new heart. Now I can run and play soccer.”
Luis has lived in an orphanage in La Paz since his mother abandoned him as a toddler. When he was offered pain medication after the surgery, he remarked that his pain wasn’t nearly as bad as other pain he’s endured in his life, according to Ainslie Guion of Cove City, whose family hosted the recovery end of the Bolivians’ stay.
“We love them both,” Guion said of the two boys.
This is the second time her family has hosted children for the project. She and her husband Marty have four children, and the youngest is an adopted son from Russia who is close in age to Luis. Like Luis, he suffered much mental and physical pain as a young child moving from one orphanage to another.
Dr. Koh Takeuchi
“I want to show Luis that people do want to love and care for him,” Guion said. “We thought we were helping these families, but in the end, they’re a huge blessing to us. We’re just a tiny piece of the puzzle,” she added.
Guion’s church, Tabernacle Baptist in New Bern, sponsored the children’s trip, meaning church members provided housing, food, local transportation and emotional support for the families during their stay.
Youth pastor Chuck Barber and his wife, Judy, of Landmark Baptist Church in Greenville, also opened their home to the children before the surgeries. This was the third time the Barbers have hosted families for the project.
Luis’s grandmother, Nilda Salazar, who accompanied him, said, “We are very happy and thankful for the medical team and the host families who have given us their homes and their support. Everyone has been so kind to us.”
Salazar chose to show her gratefulness by leaving a piece of herself behind when she returns to Bolivia. Both she and interpreter Aylin Limpias had their waste-length hair cut while they were here and donated to Locks of Love, a charity that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children in the U.S. and Canada who suffer from long-term medical hair loss.
“They have really big hearts,” said Guion of her Bolivian house guests.
Sebastian and Luis are the 32nd and 33rd Children’s Heart Project patients to be treated in Greenville since ECU began partnering with the project in 2001.
In the United States, the cost of surgery to repair a congenital heart defect can range from $30,000 to $80,000, according to Cindy Bonsall, director of the Children’s Heart Project.
The Children’s Heart Project is a ministry of the international Christian relief and evangelism organization Samaritan’s Purse. Since it began in 1997, the project has brought more than 1,000 children to North America to receive heart surgery and treatments unavailable in their home countries. To find out more, visit SamaritansPurse.org.
Heart surgery recipients Luis Amarro, 15, and 6-year-old Sebastian Viscarra find common ground in electronic devices as they recover from their surgeries in Greenville.