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 Crosswalk.com, "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."
She adds, "If you can reach the families while they are here, or the translator, and be able to spread the love of the gospel to them - and if they go home and carry that back to their family members and you start hearing from your transports that go in say they met a group that came last year, hearing the difference in their lives from what they were before they came here - it is really a testimony that you actually have accomplished what you set out to do."
In addition to transporting critically ill children to North America for care, Samaritan's Purse is also providing doctors and hospitals overseas with the equipment and training needed to diagnose heart defects and effectively treat sick children in their own countries.
The Children's Heart Project got its start when Samaritan's Purse, working in Bosnia in 1997, found many children suffering from congenital heart defects who could not be adequately treated because the country's ethnic war had damaged hospitals and equipment and forced many doctors to flee. Today the project has moved beyond Bosnia into Kosovo and Mongolia with future plans to expand into other areas of the world where treatment is unavailable.
As of January 2003, The Children's Heart Project has helped save the lives of more than 175 children including:
Anuujin Duulim, a 7-month-old girl from Mongolia, arrived in Rochester, Minn. in February 2001, critically ill, suffering from a heart condition that would end her young life if not treated quickly. Two other critically ill children, Erdembat Lkhagvasuren and Uranchimeg Ganbold, accompanied Annujin to Rochester for surgery. With aid from Samaritan's Purse and surgery provided by the Mayo Clinic, all three are now healthy children living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Blerta Morina lives with her extended family of more than 30 members in a two-room house. Her family home was burned during the war and they are working to rebuild, but without employment this is no easy task. Blerta was brought to Nashville, Tenn. for life saving heart surgery in June 2002. This was the first time Vanderbilt University Medical Center worked alongside Samaritan's Purse to help save children from war torn and under privileged countries. Blerta is now back in Kosovo leading a healthy, vibrant life since her surgery.
Rrahim Shalaj was born in the woods of Kosovo, where his mother had fled from the war that took her home and her husband. Doctors at their refugee camp could tell from Rrahim's blue-tinted skin that he had a serious heart defect, but they had neither the equipment nor the expertise for the surgery he desperately needed. Then in January 2000, Samaritan's Purse brought him to Minneapolis, where he was the first child from Kosovo to benefit from the Children's Heart Project. Within days after surgery, 16-month-old Rrahim was standing for the first time, and soon he was happily back home.
Alisa Brezac, born in 1984, had waited years to find the help she needed for surgery on her heart. Diagnosed early in life, she was scheduled to have the needed surgery in Belgrade, but then war broke out and the door was closed to Alisa. With the help of the Samaritan's Purse Children's Heart Project, Alisa was brought to Tulsa, Okla. in May 2002 to have surgery at Southcrest Hospital. Alisa was the Projects final patient in Bosnia. After aiding 82 Bosnian children, Samaritan's Purse is focusing on other areas of the world where the need is even more desperate.
"No component of the project works without the parts whether here, or the host church, or the office in Kosovo, or the doctor at Mayo," says Rich.
"These children are coming from absolutely nothing," she adds. "And for parents to come to America and put their trust in a complete stranger with the life of their child, that's got to be the Lord working. The amount of trust they place in us to care for their child, and do whatever it takes to help them get better, makes a huge impact on what we do."
Visit Samaritan's Purse at www.samaritanspurse.org