A Helping Hand That Heals Hearts

By Alice Reid
Friday, December 28, 2007

Three-year-old Caroline wanted nothing to do with her cardiologist.

"Wanna listen to my heart?" he asked, offering his stethoscope. She snuggled into her mother's lap, giving him a sideways glance as if to say, "I've had enough of your tricks."

Caroline Mwahulhwa had come a long way -- from Uganda, in fact -- to see Craig Sable at Children's Hospital. And Sable, along with Richard Jonas, a cardiac surgeon at Children's, probably saved her life with a fairly straightforward operation.

Sable is part of the hospital's global reach. Every year, he and a team of heart specialists from Florida and North Carolina go to Uganda, where the group performs surgeries and helps African doctors identify and treat children with congenital heart defects.

As director of telemedicine at Children's, Sable also consults and lectures, usually via video teleconference, with doctors from Africa to Iraq -- and as close as St. Mary's County.

Surgery for a whole raft of heart problems in children is all but routine in this country. Not so in the developing world, where many children die of cardiac complications. Sable wants to change that.

"Our goal is to identify treatable and curable heart defects in children that without repair will usually kill them," Sable said before he examined Caroline recently. "There are probably 5 million such children worldwide, and probably 1,000 in Uganda.

"My goal is to find those children and try to fix them."

Under the auspices of the Children's Heart Project, a privately funded foundation, the team has also brought dozens of Ugandan children to the United States and Europe for heart surgery. The only requirement: that the case be simple enough for the child to return home without needing complicated follow-up care.

Caroline was such a child.

"We met Caroline in March and found that she had an abnormal blood vessel leading from her coronary artery to the right side of her heart, sending a lot more blood to the heart than normal and making it pump harder," Sable said.

Typical of youngsters with heart defects, she'd suffered recurrent illnesses and hadn't grown normally.

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