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1969-2019 Celebrating Our Past, Looking Toward the Future

2019 is Children’s HeartLink 50th year. Read our 50 Years Blog to learn more about the remarkable people and events that brought us to this half-century mark.

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Pediatric Heart Surgery: From Minnesota to the World

In 1969, a young medic serving in Vietnam asked his father in Minnesota to help three Vietnamese children who needed heart surgery. His father and the community stepped up to lend their expertise and saved children who would have otherwise died. A new organization was born from their success.

Our approach has changed over the years, but our commitment to helping children with heart disease has never wavered.

Our Early Years

Our early years were shaped by forces that came together to make Minnesota a world leader in heart surgery, medical device development and philanthropy. Celebrated cardiac surgeons at the University of Minnesota built their early practices working with children born with heart defects. Their desperate parents and these pioneering doctors were co-participants in advancing heart surgery while striving to give these children a chance at normal life.

One of those pioneering surgeons was Children’s HeartLink founder Dr. Joseph Kiser. When Dr. Kiser and his partner, Dr. Frank Johnson, accepted responsibility for Vietnamese children suffering from congenital heart disease in 1969, they set in motion a commitment to improving global health.

It took a village to ensure that the foreign-born children had the resources to fly, sometimes by themselves, to Minnesota for surgery and recovery. Minnesota hospitals and surgical teams juggled schedules and paperwork, and offered their services free-of-charge, to perform these operations. The children were housed, nursed and nurtured—often for months—by local families and congregations dedicated to improving the lives of children from Vietnam, Greece, Ethiopia and Korea.

During the 23 years that children were transported to Minnesota, 643 patients received treatment. Medical missions to underserved countries began in 1993, and over the next 9 years, 814 children were treated.


A New Approach with Greater Impact

By 2003, we began training local medical teams in the countries where we worked, making it possible for children to be helped in their own country.

Today we mentor and train in-country medical specialists at 16 partner hospitals in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. Last year our partner hospitals served over 171,000 children.

One Million More Children by 2030

In our first 47 years, we reached just over one million children with heart disease. We are making strategic investments now so we can reach one million more children with heart disease in the next 10 years. We have an ambitious plan to train more in-country medical teams. These teams in turn will be able to treat more children who need and deserve care.

We want to hear from you!

Share your Children’s HeartLink stories and photos with us at hello@childrensheartlink.org

50 Years Blog

Two People Who Led Children’s HeartLink During an Era of Great Change

Published January 16, 2020 (Updated March 2, 2022) John Cushing and Elizabeth Perlich Sweeney were close partners in improving medical care for children with heart disease around the world. John served as Children’s HeartLink’s international program director for almost three decades, and Elizabeth became president of Children’s HeartLink in 2002, leading the organization for over … Continued

50 Years Blog: Sofia Receives Barbie and Healthy Heart in Minnesota 

  Sofia Mourtzopoulou and Besse Maragos, 2019. Photos by Cori Miller Photography   Thirty-eight years later, Sofia Mourtzopoulou from Greece made a return trip to Minnesota, the place that changed her life forever. In 1981 Sofia celebrated her sixth birthday at a hospital in Minneapolis, without her parents, while she waited for heart surgery. Her parents … Continued

Winnie from Kenya Shares Her Story and Passion to Improve Health Care

Winnie with her daughter   “I’m 42 and still strong. Thanks to Children’s HeartLink.” Winnie Wanna Njue from Kenya comments often on our Facebook posts. Almost three decades earlier she was among the children who came to Minnesota to have lifesaving heart surgery. Winnie was diagnosed with heart disease when she was 10, in 1987. … Continued

Nurse Be Ho Changed Her Life by Helping Children

Published June 20, 2019 Updated February 8, 2024 “My whole life I worked with children,” said Be Ho, sharing her story about how she got involved in the Children’s Heart Fund, the name of Children’s HeartLink until 1994. Children’s Heart Fund changed her life, not just her job.  In 1972, Be Ho escorted one of … Continued

How Medical Volunteer Patsy Stinchfield Cultivates Culture of Safety

Patsy Stinchfield receives a plaque from Dr. Ulisses Croti in honor of our 10-year partnership. Also in the photo: Andreas Tsakistos, Children’s HeartLink country director. June, 2018   Surgeons, cardiologists, respiratory therapists, intensivists, anesthesiologists, scrub and ICU nurses – this is a long list, yet not a comprehensive list of specialists who are on our … Continued

Tom Keller: Children’s HeartLink is Particularly Close to My Heart

Tom Keller (on the right) and board members in the 1970s   Throughout our 50-year history, Children’s HeartLink has had a number of dedicated friends who supported our work. Tom Keller, a retired attorney from Minneapolis, has been “one of the closest long-term friends the organization has had since its inception,” according to Children’s HeartLink … Continued

Remembering Dr. Joe Kiser, Our Founder

Dr. Kiser with a young patient in the 1970s   Published on April 20, 2019 It is with great sadness that we share the news of the death of Children’s HeartLink’s founder Joseph Kiser, M.D. Dr. Kiser, 86, died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife Laura and his little dog … Continued

50 Years Blog: For the Sake of Three Little Children

This postcard was sent from Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1975, when U.S. mission organizations had to evacuate “because of deteriorating conditions” in the region   Published March 5, 2019 “Eight weeks away from home and work – for the sake of three little children…” This is the first line of a typewritten letter from 1969 … Continued

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