Riley team nears end of another international rescue mission

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“To see such joy in parents’ faces – a lot of them haven’t had anything good happen to them and here’s a little something good,” Dr. Mark Turrentine said of the heart surgeries his team does. “They’ve got a sick child who’s going to be made better, and they are so happy.”


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

The children came one by one to be operated on by a team of doctors and nurses from another country, another culture.

All had serious heart defects and limited access to care in their home country or refugee camp.

There was Nerin, a 2-year-old Palestinian girl with an atrial septal defect; and Qasem, a 7-month-old Syrian boy with tetralogy of Fallot (a hole between the bottom two chambers of the heart, a narrowed pulmonary valve, thick heart muscle and misaligned aorta).

Also, Mazean, an 11-year-old Iraqi boy with a large ventricular septal defect, and Hawra, 16 months old, with tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. The Kurdish baby, whose surgery is sponsored by Veterans Rebuilding Life, arrived with a blue tint to his skin, signifying low oxygen levels.

These were but a few of the young patients who arrived in Amman, Jordan this week to receive lifesaving surgery from a team of Riley Hospital for Children doctors and nurses, led by Dr. Mark Turrentine.

It’s the 27th or 28th trip to Amman (he’s lost track) for Dr. Turrentine and other Riley doctors and nurses, who have helped more than 300 children in Jordan alone. In all, he has led close to 40 Riley international trips to Jordan, Uganda, China and Lebanon.

The renowned heart surgeon can’t help but feel a personal responsibility to these sick kids more than 6,000 miles away. That’s why he and his team are working long days at Al Khalidi Hospital in Amman this week to help children who might otherwise die.

“It’s developed into a situation where I don’t take personal time off anymore because I feel it’s selfish to have time off and not go operate on a group of kids,” the cardiovascular surgeon said of the pressure he puts on himself. “I know that every trip we don’t make, that’s 10, 12, 14 kids that may never get operated on.”

Despite the language barrier, the joy on the faces of parents who are desperate for their child to be healed needs no translation.

“A lot of them haven’t had anything good happen to them,” Dr. Turrentine said. “Some of their stories are horrific, and here’s a little something good happening to them. They’ve got a sick child who’s going to be made better, and they are so happy.”

One father was so overcome he planted a kiss on Dr. Turrentine’s cheek.

The international medical mission trips are eye-opening for the team in many ways.

“People are the same everywhere in the world,” Dr. Turrentine said. “We’re just separated by cultural and political differences that are manmade.”

At the end of the day, he said, “everybody cares about the same thing, and it means a lot to these parents to have somebody come over and try to help their child.”

Joining Dr. Turrentine in Amman for this trip are Dr. Michael Johansen, pediatric cardiologist; Dr. Michael Kasten, assistant surgeon; Dr. Mouhammad Yabrodi, pediatric intensive care specialist; Dr. Nicole DeJesus Brugman, pediatrician and intensive care fellow; and Amy DeHeer, pediatric nurse practitioner and ICU nurse.

In two days, the team had completed as many open-heart cases as would normally be done in a week back home, Dr. Johansen said.

“It is exhausting and rewarding work that we are grateful and humbled to take part in.”

While the medical team donates its time, the trip is supported financially by Rotary International, Gift of Life, Chain of Hope and Veterans Rebuilding Life.

“We are well-settled into the mission at this point, tired but proud of the entire team’s effort, including the Al Khalidi staff, whom we’ve been working alongside at a taxing pace,” Dr. Johansen wrote in a blog about the trip. “Our numerous hosts continue to support and make us feel like family more than 6,000 miles from home.”

Dr. Turrentine will lead another trip to Jordan in November.

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