Journey of the Heart
Armed with her camera, curiosity, and compassion, photojournalist Amie Vanderford joined a medical mission to document the work of a Memphis philanthropy.
photography by Amie Vanderford
As a photographer who seeks inspiring stories of people who make a difference here and around the world, I could not have chosen a better opportunity than the one I was offered recently: Traveling to Honduras with a Memphis-based organization that saves children’s lives on its global missions. Not only did I get to meet and photograph some remarkable professionals as they worked to repair damaged hearts, I came to know and appreciate the children and their families who benefited from this philanthropic endeavor.
Since 1993, the International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF), founded in Memphis by pediatric heart surgeon Dr. William Novick, has provided heart surgeries for more than 6,300 children in more than 30 countries worldwide. Approximately one in every 100 children born in the world will have a heart defect, and many won’t see their first birthday due to congenital heart disease.
The primary mission of the ICHF is to assemble medical teams in order to diagnose and treat children with congenital heart disease in developing countries that request help, and secondarily, to train local medical staff to build their own pediatric cardiac surgery programs. Missions are funded through in-kind and monetary donations, and medical professionals also donate their time and expertise.
The group that I accompanied — on this 18th trip to Honduras since ICHF first went there in 2008 — consisted of two surgeons, a perfusionist, an anesthesiologist, three cardiologists, two intensivists, a respiratory therapist, seven pediatric ICU nurses, a pre-med student, a medical student, and a biomedical engineer. We hailed from the United States, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Nicaragua, and Chile.
We arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on a Saturday, and work began that Sunday. Already a long line of patients had formed, many having traveled as long as 10 hours for help. That first day, professionals examined more than 20 children and over the two weeks of our visit, 116 were evaluated.
My good fortune was to rotate from the pediatrics ward to the operating room to the pediatric ICU — and to photograph the amazing achievements in each. Among these was a surgical procedure called an atrial septal defect (ASD) closure, a repair to a hole between the heart’s two upper chambers. I felt privileged enough to see a human heart up close, but capturing the surgeons in action as they repaired the problem was one of the most fascinating experiences of my career.
Another incredible moment was witnessing a boy who had undergone surgery stand up the very next day and kick a soccer ball around his ICU room. Not all of the patients handled surgery this well, but the fact that many did was astonishing.
Two children stood out on this trip: Juan Manuel Guity, age 5, and Fanny Ortez Sanchez, 5 months. Both children have Down Syndrome and related congenital heart defects. In Fanny’s case, the middle part of her heart, where the four heart chambers meet, was missing. There was a hole between the upper two chambers and lower two chambers; therefore, she had only one atrioventricular valve (AV). The surgeon created a septum, or wall, that separated the left side from the right, and then separated the valve into two valves. Although Fanny had many complications after her surgery, she was a star in the ICU and each one of us joked with her mother that we wanted to take her home with us. Best of all, Fanny’s AV canal repair was successful.
Juan Manuel had a congenital heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), which causes low oxygenation saturation of the blood and the bluish coloring of the skin known as cyanosis.
Unfortunately, due to his complicated heart anatomy and very small pulmonary arteries with collateral (extra) vessels, the surgeons were unable to do a complete repair. A short-term solution was provided in the form of a Blalock-Taussig shunt, which assists with getting more blood flow into his lungs. The longer term plan is to wait and see how his heart develops naturally. In the future, if surgery is in his best interest, he will have a diagnostic cardiac catheterization in order to get a better view of his heart’s anatomy. As one of the doctors pointed out, Juan Manuel demonstrated the strength of these kids and their ability to bounce back even from a difficult post-operative period.
Because I speak Spanish, I was able to talk with the boy’s mother, Diana, and offer her comfort. She, in turn, truly impressed me with her faith and positive outlook even though her son was slow to awake from surgery and several days passed before his condition stabilized. Diana experienced moments of fear and doubt as any parent would, but more often than not she was seen with a smile on her face while comforting young Juan Manuel.
Over the course of the two-week mission, 26 patients were treated through surgery and heart catheterizations, and not one child died. I saw firsthand the astounding difference that ICHF — founded right here in Memphis — makes in the lives of children who might otherwise have no chance.
If you would like to learn more and add your support to ICHF, please visit its website, www.babyheart.org.