Healthy Hearts for Happy Birthdays: Medical Training Creates Cherished Milestones for Children with Heart Disease

Published May 28, 2024
By Erin Bursch, Vice President of Development at Children’s HeartLink

Few moments in life match the joy of witnessing a family celebrate a child’s first birthday. Think of the tender moments and sleepless nights that bring a baby and their loving family to this precious milestone.
 Mom and Baby at GKNMH during Mayo Clinic training visit with Children's HeartLink

Recently, in Coimbatore, India, I came to know a baby who endured more hardship in his first year of life than most adults face in a lifetime. I also saw the resilience and optimism reflected in him. And the joy of his parents when they sang “Happy Birthday” in a hospital to celebrate their precious baby boy. 

This moment filled with joy and gratitude was made possible because of supporters like you who believe in the lifesaving mission of Children’s HeartLink. Will you consider making a gift today to help make more moments like this possible for children born with congenital heart disease? 

A global partnership means more hearts healed in India

When I recently traveled with a remarkable team of volunteers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to Coimbatore, India for a Children’s HeartLink training trip, I saw firsthand two teams tirelessly collaborating to enhance care for children with heart disease.

Operating Room

As a kid growing up in southern Minnesota, Mayo Clinic professionals were always revered. Traveling with members of the pediatric cardiac care team was an experience I’ll never forget. During our time together at G. Kuppuswamy Naidu Memorial (GKNM) Hospital, a Children’s HeartLink partner hospital, I saw cardiologists, surgeons and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) staff gathered to review cases, discuss risks, plan procedures and identify opportunities for improvement in their respective roles. 

The little boy whose journey to heart care brought to life the massive impact of our work

Experiencing cardiac arrests multiple times before undergoing open heart surgery is daunting at any age. However, for an eleven-month-old, it’s a nearly insurmountable challenge even for the best surgical teams. This little boy was diagnosed with Ebstein anomaly, a rare congenital heart defect where the valve separating the upper and lower right heart chambers doesn’t develop properly. The first time I saw him, all I saw was his tiny heart, under the bright lights of the operating theater.

I watched as cardiac surgeons, Dr. Vijay, GKNM Hospital, and Dr. Joseph Dearani, Mayo Clinic, worked to save his life by repairing and reshaping his heart. (And yes, it was the size of a walnut!) This little boy was surrounded by dozens of professionals from scrub nurses, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, perfusionists, all working in unison. It was like watching a well-choreographed ballet. After nearly six hours in the operating theater, the surgical team had done all the necessary repairs and stabilized the baby as best as possible.

Bedside care after surgeryDuring the surgery, the work of his heart and lungs was done by a machine and in the days following a machine would continue to pump his blood for him until his heart was strong enough to beat on its own. Going in, the odds were not the most favorable. But as we learned, he is a heart warrior. He fought hard over the next four days, and his PICU team wouldn’t let him down.

As a newcomer to pediatric cardiology, it was easy for me to get lost in the complexity of the work being done – until I saw this baby boy’s mother and father visit him after surgery in the pediatric intensive care unit. The fear in their eyes, coupled with the hope they had, knowing he had two of the best cardiac teams in his corner was unforgettable and unimaginable. Their son. Their whole world was in a fight for his life. 

Nearly a week after returning to the states, we received a video from Dr. Vijay. When played, you can hear “Happy Birthday” being sung by the entire pediatric cardiac care team. You can see the baby boy sitting in his mother’s lap and his dad holding his hand. You can feel a sense of love, kindness and celebration for a very special one-year-old.

Donate today to help transform pediatric heart care in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The heartbreaking reality of congenital heart disease worldwide and hope for the future 

90% of the 1.35 million babies born with congenital heart disease (CHD) each year lack access to heart care. Training visits like the one I’ve shared, plus curriculums designed to enhance nurse training and global advocacy efforts to stop preventable deaths due to CHD are happening year-round. Last year, Children’s HeartLink partners served 196,000 children with CHD. 

During this trip the Children’s HeartLink mission came to life right before my eyes; the lives of children, families, partner hospital staff and medical volunteers transformed in a matter of days. I can now tell you, without a doubt, that every single dollar you contribute to Children’s HeartLink has the potential to be a transformational gift that results in more lives saved.

Thank you to the wonderful medical volunteers from Mayo Clinic who participated in this training visit:

  • Dr. Joseph Dearani, cardiovascular surgeon
  • Dr. Grace Arteaga, pediatric intensivist
  • Jody Doll, nurse practitioner
  • Erinn Erickson, registered nurse
  • Anastasiia Karadzha, research fellow
  • Brianna Miller, respiratory therapist
  • Dr. Mike Nemergut, pediatric anesthesiologist
  • Dr. Nathan Taggart, pediatric cardiologist
  • Edvin Tahay, perfusionist

Little girl going home after heart surgery

How you can make a difference for children in need of heart care

Today, I ask you to join me in making a gift to Children’s HeartLink to save children’s lives and transform pediatric heart care in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. Your contribution can make an impact around the world. By joining me today, your gift will directly support training by volunteers, increase access to education for care staff, build skills for critical care providers, and increase access for children in need.

A couple of weeks after this training visit, Dr. Vijay called to say that ALL the children operated on during our training visit to GKNM Hospital had gone home. It is because of supporters like you that heart warriors and their parents can celebrate birthdays, first steps, graduations and so many more milestones.

View pictures from our training visit to Coimbatore: