North Shore Hospital Surgeon Performs First Pediatric Open-Heart Surgery in Guyana

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Sheel Vatsia, MD, a cardiac surgeon from North Shore University Hospital, performed the first-ever pediatric open-heart surgery in Guyana this spring as part of a medical aid mission to the poor South American nation. In all, eight children (varying in age, from one to 11) received life-saving heart surgeries from Dr. Vatsia, during his week-long visit. The children presented with a variety of heart defects that, left untreated, would typically result in death during the first five to 12 years of life.

Ultimately, the goal must be to train local surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists so that conditions like the ones facing these children can be treated more promptly and effectively.

Sheel Vatsia, MD, a cardiac surgeon from North Shore University Hospital, performed the first-ever pediatric open-heart surgery in Guyana this spring as part of a medical aid mission to the poor South American nation. In all, eight children (varying in age, from one to 11) received life-saving heart surgeries from Dr. Vatsia, during his week-long visit. The children presented with a variety of heart defects that, left untreated, would typically result in death during the first five to 12 years of life.

“All the children we treated desperately needed surgery,” Dr. Vatsia explained. “Many needed these operations months or even years ago. It is good that we got to them when we did.”

One of those children, Shakiel Griffith, was born with ventricular septal defect– a hole between the left and right chambers of the heart. When Shakiel was an infant his fingers would turn blue. As he grew older, the boy had constant breathing problems and contorted his body to relieve the tension in his chest. Since undergoing surgery, he is pain-free and his breathing problems are a thing of the past.

“Our team made a huge difference in the lives of those eight children,” Dr. Vatsia said, crediting the 14-member surgical team from the United States that operated on cases designated by the Guyana government as ‘most severe.’ However, he was quick to add that there are thousands more who need surgical intervention in a country that lacks a single pediatric cardiac surgeon. “The goal is to have trained specialists and the proper facilities within Guyana itself.”

A poor nation spread over 83,000 square miles, with a population of 770,000 (by comparison Long Island – home to North Shore University Hospital - has 7.4 million people over 1,400 square miles), Guyana has sub-standard hospital care and extremely limited capability for major medical surgical procedures due to a low number of trained specialists. It’s a condition Dr. Vatsia says is heartbreaking and frustrating and one he is looking to help change.

“It’s impossible not to feel for the children and individual circumstances, especially as a parent myself. But in order to really make a difference, the goal should be to have individualized training for local clinicians - surgical, nursing, anesthesia - so that the country doesn’t need to rely on special missions to treat sick children.”

He said that the medical team, which included North Shore University Hospital nurse Maureen Fitzpatrick and representatives from Mount Sinai, Montefiore and Maimonides Medical Centers in New York, as well as, Texas Children’s and Miami Children’s Hospital – is looking to do just that. One idea is to work with individual governments and the medical community from a variety of nations to create a regional hub of trained specialists – so that physicians from within Caribbean and South American nations could serve their own population.

“What we did on this medical mission was important to the children we treated and it made a huge difference in their lives and the lives of their families,” Dr. Vatsia said. “But it is a band-aid approach to a very serious situation. Ultimately, the goal must be to train local surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists so that conditions like the ones facing these children can be treated more promptly and effectively.”

Dr. Vatsia said the next step in that process is further coordination with Guyanese and Caribbean government officials and physicians to systematically train individuals there as well as in specialized centers world-wide. “They can then invest in a local institution to accommodate the appropriately trained personnel. All this does of course, require significant funding and resources. We hope to be able to go down and jump-start this process.”

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Terry Lynam

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