For most people in the United States, American Heart Month serves as a reminder to become more heart healthy - watch the cholesterol, start an exercise program and learn the warning signs of cardiac arrest.  But for three young children from Kosovo, American Heart Month represents a new lease on life.


Six-year-old Agnesa Kafexholli (female), 11-month-old Valdrin Morina (male), and 10-month-old Qendresa Aliu (female) arrive in Rochester, Minn. on Feb. 15 for heart surgery at Mayo Clinic courtesy of Samaritan's Purse, the international relief organization headed by Franklin Graham. Traveling with their mothers and an interpreter, the children will be hosted by First Baptist Church and local Rochester families during their four-week stay. 


Treatment for defective heart conditions in many countries is extremely limited. So, since 1997, the Samaritan's Purse Children's Heart Project has brought more than 185 children from Bosnia, Kosovo and Mongolia to the United States and Canada for critical heart care.


Mayo Clinic has given life-saving heart surgery to 10 Samaritan's Purse Children Heart Project kids since May 1998. More than 45 hospitals in North America have participated in the project, including St. Vincent in Indianapolis, Ind., and Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's in Tampa, Fla.


A Samaritan's Purse team works with doctors overseas to find these children, diagnose them correctly and send their records to the United States. A team here evaluates whether they do or don't meet the requirements of the program. Then they will try to find a hospital that will donate 100 percent of the surgery. The Children's Heart Project pays for visas, passports and tickets. They also identify a host church in the area of the hospital that, in turn, finds a host family to house the families and feed them


Christy Rich, who is travel coordinator for the project, told, "The children are critically ill in that they will not survive to adulthood if they do not get the surgery. Some of them are really critical in that if we don't help them within the next six months, they won't live past then."


Rich arranges for visas and tickets, and also for the medical personnel - an RN or LPN - to pick the children up and bring them to the United States.  She sometimes escorts the children back home and has observed one surgery.


According to Rich, "There is nothing like seeing a child who can't even walk or sit up or barely eat, come back three days after surgery and start riding a tricycle and gain four pounds before they go home."


After the surgery, Samaritan's Purse has a follow-up program within the child's country that involves evangelism as well as medical checkups at one, three and six months, and at one-year.


"When we get those pictures back and see those children, and the difference in their lives, and how they look, it lets you know you did something that needed to be done," says Rich. "It touches you."