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12.02.2019 - News

Mission: saving children's hearts

In Senegal, one thousand children a year are born with a heart defect. The complexity of carrying out surgery locally is a challenge. Terre des hommes (Tdh) organises missions with the CHUV (University Hospital of the canton Vaud) to save these children’s lives. The long-term goal is to make such surgery possible through practical training of the local staff.

Today is a special day for Khadidiatou – it’s her sixth birthday, but not only that: tomorrow she is going to hospital for an operation. “I’m a bit scared, but at the same time, I’m glad”, confides the little girl. This young Senegalese was born with cardiac malformation, just like one child in a hundred worldwide. “Having heart disease is like being short of breath after running fast, even though you haven’t done anything”, explains Abdoulaye Mbaye, Head of Tdh’s office in Senegal. Without surgery, it is only too probable that the little girl would not reach adulthood.

The humanitarian commitment of experts

Twice a year, Tdh organises a mission with the CHUV. A medical team goes to Senegal to carry out a dozen complex cardiac operations and to give 150 consultations to children with heart problems. To do this, different medical CHUV specialists work hand in hand with the local teams of the Paediatric Cardiac Centre Cuomo in Dakar. These missions have been contributing for more than ten years to the practical training of Senegalese experts, who can already treat the less complicated cases by themselves. As the operations and consultations are undertaken free of charge, the missions also make it possible for children with complex heart disease from families with financial difficulties to access the health treatment they need.

Khadidiatou’s greatest dream is to become a doctor, but today she just wants something else: to be able to go to school after the operation.

Collaboration that saves lives

The day before the surgery, Khadidiatou and her mother arrive at the hospital in Fann for preoperative examinations. In the consultation room, Nicole Sekarski, the heart specialist from CHUV, does an ultrasound scan. The local cardiologists assist her so as to learn how to make the correct diagnosis. She exchanges information with the staff of the surgical care team on the best way to look after the child.

Mission du CHUV salle opératoire, opération du coeur d'enfant

The next day, the anaesthetist is the first to arrive in the unit to ensure that the little girl is fast asleep before the operation starts. Then the local surgeon can begin work. A drug stops the heart beating to make it possible for the surgical team to operate. An extracorporeal machine called the heart-lung machine assures the blood flow and supply of oxygen during the two-hour operation. The local surgeon operates until the intervention becomes too complex, and then Tornike Sologashvili, the surgeon from the Geneva University Hospitals working in this mission with the CHUV, carefully takes over; four diligent hands are busy working to save the life of the sleeping child. The operation is transmitted to a screen in a neighbouring room, where each stage is observed and explained directly to the surgical trainees.

Improving the quality of post-operative care

“Cardiac surgery is extremely complex.  Every single member of the team has to be very skilful to keep a child alive both during and after the operation”, explains Vivianne Amiet, the CHUV doctor for intensive care. Tdh offers ongoing training to the local nurses who specialise in intensive care within the paediatric cardiology unit, ensuring high-quality post-operative care.

This operation proceeded smoothly. The heart-lung machine slowly came to a stop and the blood could flow to the organs, and Khadidiatou’s heart started to beat again. She woke up in the intensive care unit after a successful operation. Her mother was already at her side when the little girl opened her eyes; happy and relieved, she kissed her daughter’s forehead.

Photo credits: ©Tdh/Ollivier Girard