Last year, Frankie was a 14-year-old Rwandan with a million-dollar smile and a death sentence due to rheumatic heart disease.
But the teen’s life changed when he crossed paths with volunteers from the medical nonprofit Team Heart, including Bruce Leavitt, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at University of Vermont Medical Center.
Dr. Leavitt put two donated heart valves into Frankie’s chest, and today the teen sends text messages about football and school. That’s just one of the many cases that Team Heart has taken on, but Dr. Leavitt says Frankie is a perfect example of why he and other UVM Medical Center staff return to Rwanda every year.
“It’s people like Frankie that make all the difference,” Dr. Leavitt says.
Dr. Leavitt has spent more than 30 years at UVM Medical Center. He’s also a professor at Larner College of Medicine, where he is chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. That’s technically several jobs, but Dr. Leavitt says he’s happy to have stuck with “one job” in one place throughout his career.
“I like the people that I work with here,” he said. “I like the job I’ve had here. I’m from Maine, but I married a Vermonter. I love living in Vermont.”
However, his medical career also has taken him around the globe. He’s done “surgical missionary” work in countries like China, Russia, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, and some of that work came as a member of Doctors Without Borders.
But Dr. Leavitt wasn’t performing his bread-and-butter work – heart surgery – on those trips. He finally got a chance to do so after he encountered Morton “Chip” Bolman, MD, who along with his wife, Ceeya Patton-Bolman, founded Team Heart in 2006 while working in Boston.
Helping a vulnerable population
Dr. Bolman – who also was a professor at Larner College of Medicine for a few years – created Team Heart so that volunteers could offer “humanitarian open-heart surgery for the vulnerable population” of Rwanda, according to the organization’s website.
Dr. Leavitt lays out that vulnerability in stark terms: “Rwanda has 12 million people and four cardiologists and no standing heart surgery program,” he said.
Making matters worse, Team Heart says Africa has a high prevalence of rheumatic heart disease, which stems from untreated streptococcal infections and damages heart valves.
“We don’t have rheumatic heart disease here very much anymore, because we have doctors who give penicillin for strep throat,” Dr. Leavitt said. But Rwanda doesn’t have the proper medical infrastructure for reliable, widespread primary care, he added.
Every year, volunteers with Team Heart travel to Rwanda to perform heart surgeries that save lives. Those surgeries will be spread over four trips in 2020, but in past years, Team Heart has done 16 operations in one eight-day span.
Those procedures happened in a hospital with four operating rooms and unreliable infrastructure.
“The air conditioner worked only about half the time,” Dr. Leavitt said. “The power would go out once in a while. Toilets didn’t work in the hospital all the time. And they had virtually no supplies for heart surgery. So we had to bring everything, including chest tubes.”
Dr. Leavitt lauds UVM Medical Center’s consistent willingness to donate drugs and supplies for Team Heart trips. Sometimes, those donations have come in a pinch: Last year, Dr. Leavitt learned shortly before departure for Rwanda that there were no operating room packs containing vital equipment for surgeons.
“Our hospital donated 16 packs,” Dr. Leavitt said. “So last year, I went to Africa with 29 trunks of material. This hospital has been incredibly supportive of Team Heart.”
A team effort
Just as important has been the support of UVM Medical Center staff. Currently active staff who have made the Team Heart trip include Drs. Patrick Bender and Marc Tischler; Drs. Mayo Fujii and Alexander Riveron, both surgical residents; nurses Rebecca Austen, Grace Lynch, Mark Sgantas, Carroll Maxwell, Missy Stabach and Vanessa Lake; perfusionist Jennifer Wheel; pharmacist Michele Corriveau; Tom Buley, biomedical engineering specialist; and Jean Roberts, biomedical equipment technician.
Dr. Leavitt’s wife, Anne Leavitt, a librarian by trade, also has gone on several of the trips to participate in a reading program for grade school children called “Kigali Reads” and to support Team Heart.
Given the sometimes-unpredictable operating conditions in Rwanda, Dr. Leavitt said having a familiar team makes a big difference.
“You just have this level of comfort when you have everybody around you knows each other from UVM,” Dr. Leavitt said. “It just takes away one of the unknowns.”
Team Heart plans to double the number of surgeries performed in Rwanda this year. There also are plans to increase educational efforts, as the goal is for the country to have a freestanding heart surgery program.
Making personal connections
There may come a time when Team Heart won’t have to make frequent trips to Rwanda. Until then, volunteers are sustained by stories of the patients they’ve helped.
For Dr. Leavitt, who’s performed about 50 surgeries in Rwanda, there are many such stories. A recent example is a 25-year-old woman who was so weakened by heart disease that she couldn’t walk up a hill to get to her job in a grocery store.
The woman underwent heart surgery but suffered complications and had a stroke after the operation.
“I go back a year later, and there she is sitting there, shook my hand, total recovery,” Dr. Leavitt said. “She walks up the hill to go to work every day. I went back last year, and there was a baby on her back. That tells it all.”
And, of course, there’s Frankie. Dr. Leavitt proudly displays photos of himself and the smiling teen, while also noting that Frankie had only a year or two to live without surgical intervention.
Dr. Leavitt says his work in Vermont has always been fulfilling. But he sums up his feelings about Team Heart by returning to Frankie’s story.
“Somehow,” Dr. Leavitt said, “when you’re over there in Africa saving a 14-year-old’s life, with all the help from the people here, it just really clicks – what you’re doing, and how you and your UVM colleagues can make a difference in people’s lives.”