Children’s HeartLink Partnership Opens Doors for Young Surgeons in Hanoi

Little Minh from Hanoi is a heart warrior who underwent two complex open heart surgeries before the age of 5. Treatment for his heart defect became available at Vietnam National Children’s Hospital (VNCH) just a few years prior to Minh’s birth. A shortage of senior pediatric heart surgeons in the country makes it difficult for young surgeons to learn even basic surgical techniques. A Children’s HeartLink partnership is changing that. For the past four years, mentored by medical volunteers from the University of California San Fransico (UCSF), the VNCH team has been working on improving their pediatric cardiac program and outcomes for complex heart surgeries. It means that children with heart defects like Minh can seek treatment and receive the proper heart care in their own country.
Children’s HeartLink training visit at Vietnam National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi, November 2018

 

Offering training and mentoring

Through this partnership, medical volunteers from UCSF committed to traveling to Hanoi to train their peers. With the pandemic, the UCSF team switched to virtual training and weekly conference calls to discuss difficult cases.

Open heart surgery is not simple and involves a lot of pre- and post-operative care. We need to be comprehensive as a team to create good results. If the operation time is too long, it’s harder for a patient to recover. We need to work together like a machine to reduce the operation time. We learned a lot about how to work as a team from Children’s HeartLink medical volunteers. This is quite a fruitful cooperation for us,” says Dr. Nguyen Ly Thinh Truong, VNCH director of the cardiology center and head of cardiovascular surgery.

As a young cardiac surgeon himself, Dr. Truong is mentored by Dr. Shunji Sano, a world-renowned pediatric heart surgeon from UCSF. Dr. Sano has performed more than 7,000 pediatric cardiac surgeries and pioneered a few surgical techniques, including the Sano procedure – the most popular treatment in the early stages for hypoplastic left heart syndrome, one of the most complex heart defects.

“Many countries in Southeast Asia have few pediatric cardiac surgery facilities and surgeons; so there are opportunities for young pediatric cardiac surgeons to do many surgeries. This is their big difference from young American and Japanese cardiac surgeons. However, the problem is that many of them haven’t learned the basic surgical techniques. Therefore, the surgery is fast, but it’s crude and often causes many complications. We are very happy indeed that the UCSF team brings the Hanoi team the most advanced techniques, a way of thinking, a strategy and team care,” says Dr. Sano.

Vietnam National Children’s Hospital

 

Making remarkable progress 

“We perform many complex open heart surgeries now, and we can apply the most up-to-date treatment strategies to provide the best outcome for patients,” says Dr. Truong.

In addition to the improved open-heart surgery results, the partnership with Children’s HeartLink and UCSF has helped the team in Hanoi standardize the protocols of treatment, improve the quality of nursing care in ICU, improve the quality of patient’s consultation and develop the manual of care for children with heart disease.

“During the UCSF team visits, our junior doctors learn on a case-by-case basis from hands-on training. We also develop relationships between our center and Children’s HeartLink Centers of Excellence in India and Malaysia and send our junior staff to their fellowship programs to be trained according to world-class standards. This way, our young specialists can improve their basic knowledge, become more confident and mature, and take a more important role in our hospital system,” says Dr. Truong.

The remarkable progress that the VNCH pediatric cardiac program was able to achieve in the last few years is noticed by families of young patients, including Minh’s parents. His first surgery was done when VNCH has just started the training program. Minh’s second procedure was performed in the winter of 2021. “It was a surprise for me to see all the changes at the hospital in regard to the improved facilities, professionalism, and nursing care. I think it played an important role to shorten the period of hospitalization for the patient. The investment into those changes by the hospitals and their donors is extremely helpful for the patients,” says Minh’s mom.

Read Minh’s story

Discussing a patient case with the UCSF team and the family, Vietnam National Children’s Hospital

 

Pursuing a Center of Excellence status

VNCH is a hub for a network of 14 provincial hospitals. Dr. Truong’s team plans to pass on their skills to satellite hospitals and continue to improve their pediatric cardiac program. “I hope that we can reduce the hospital mortality rate after open heart surgery to 1%. I hope we could persuade the Ministry of Health in Vietnam to restrict the abortion ratio especially with fetuses with heart defects. I hope we will soon become a Children’s HeartLink Center of Excellence to train others.”

As a mentor, Dr. Sano also shares his hopes. “The National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi should become the center of pediatric medicine in Vietnam. In the field of pediatric cardiac treatment, I want them to grow into a leading hospital not only in Vietnam but also in Southeast Asia and in the near future, into a hospital that will be on par with Japan and the United States. We will be very happy if we can support them to achieve this dream.”

Read more about Children’s HeartLink work