Heart surgeon’s vacations are spent saving lives overseas

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03/10/2022

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Dr. Mark Turrentine and his Riley team just returned from a week in Amman, Jordan, where they corrected heart defects in a dozen children.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

For Dr. Mark Turrentine, a trip to the beach can wait.

So can cleaning out his garage.

Instead, the longtime cardiothoracic surgeon at Riley Children’s Health prefers to spend his “vacation” time working – saving kids across the globe who might not otherwise survive.

He and a team of Riley specialists just returned from a medical mission trip to Amman, Jordan, where they operated on a dozen children – some from Iraq, some from Jordan and some living in refugee camps in the Middle East.

It is the 32nd trip he has made to Jordan over the past 15 years, but just the second since the pandemic shut down travel two years ago.

He quietly chuckles when asked about the last true vacation he took.

“Define vacation,” he said, during a break between surgeries at Riley this week.

“My time away from Riley is spent doing this. This is like a vacation for me – it’s time away and it’s time away doing something that is meaningful. And you see interesting people and interesting places. What else is a vacation? So what if you work hard while you’re there.”

It’s hard to argue with the renowned surgeon, who has mended many a broken heart during his three decades at Riley but would just as soon fly under the radar than be in the spotlight.

For him, these trips are about giving hope to parents who might otherwise have none.

“It’s pretty meaningful to see something good happen for families that are fairly desperate to have something good happen to them.”

Riley pediatric cardiologist Dr. Anne Farrell, who also traveled to Jordan last week and has gone on previous trips, agrees.

“Being able to affect kids’ lives so dramatically – when they otherwise have no chance – is really rewarding,” she said.

She shared the story of Danial, who traveled from Iraq with his mother. He was so weak and cyanotic that he was unable to walk before surgery, Dr. Farrell said. Two days later, he was kicking a soccer ball down the hospital hallway as his mother took a video of him.

“That’s life-changing,” she said.

Parents and children alike are grateful, Dr. Turrentine said, adding that he was able to reunite on this trip with one of the first children he operated on in Amman back in 2008.

That child, now a teenager, came to see the surgeon last week just to say thank you.

“It’s nice that they want to do that,” he said. “It’s interesting that the kids seem to have a connection. They know about this person who operated on them and for whatever reason, they look forward to meeting them.”

The reason is clear, of course. As the years pass, those children have heard the stories from their parents about how their lives were saved.

In a way, these families have hit the lottery, Dr. Turrentine said. They are the lucky ones, the ones whose kids born with serious heart defects now have a chance to see their next birthday.

In the two weeks leading up to this trip, Dr. Turrentine evaluated about 35 potential patients for the 10 to 12 operating slots, and that’s only a handful of the requests that come through every year. It’s always a difficult process to choose who gets treatment – made harder by the realities of geography, travel and overall risk to the patient.

“I would say of the kids we’ve operated on over there, I don’t know if it would be an overstatement that maybe 80% or 90% of them might not have gotten care if teams like this weren’t going over there,” he said. “Particularly the ones out of Iraq and out of refugee camps. They don’t have access to too much.”

Funding partners like Rotary Club/Gift of Life Greenfield, the Josh Lindblom Foundation and Chain of Hope London continue to make the lifesaving missions possible. But the teams that go are donating their time.

Others who participated on this trip included Dr. Mouhammad Yabrodi, who specializes in pediatric cardiology and critical care medicine; CVICU nurse Sheila Rocchio; and cardiothoracic surgery fellow Dr. Maha Alkhuziem.

It was a relatively small team this year, due to the risk of COVID, so Dr. Turrentine tried to balance the complexity of cases with the capability of the hospital team in Amman and the capacity of the Riley team.

“I’m really proud of the group that goes,” he said. “I’m just always very proud to travel with the Heart Center team on these trips because no one could imagine how hard they work and the passion they have for it.”

Don’t ask him how long he is going to keep doing this work. He has no answer yet. As long as there are community partners willing to support the missions and Riley team members willing to go, he will continue.

The garage will just have to wait.

Photos provided by Dr. Anne Farrell

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Dr. Turrentine on medical mission trips: "Service above self" - Interest in global humanitarian work began in the late 90s for Dr. Mark Turrentine, cardiothoracic surgeon and division chief at Riley Children's Health. In 2007, he and a team went to Amman, Jordan. Now, he makes four or five trips each year to Jordan and Lebanon.

Leading with their heart in Jordan - Riley team led by Dr. Mark Turrentine returns to save lives in the Middle East for the first time since March 2020.

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