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Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute

Lifesaving heart surgeries for RHD complications in Uganda go on despite COVID-19

Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute

Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute for RHD-related heart surgeries in Uganda, March 2020. These patients were originally scheduled as part of the cancelled medical mission, but UHI cardiovascular surgeon successfully managed these cases without the support of the mission doctors from the U.S.

In early March as countries around the globe began to wrestle with how best to tackle the spread of COVID-19, a group of doctors, nurses, researchers and other medical staff from Children’s National Hospital were wrestling with a distinct set of challenges: What to do about the 10 Ugandan children and adults who were currently scheduled for lifesaving heart surgery (and the countless others who would benefit from the continued training of the local heart surgery team) to correct complications of rheumatic heart disease (RHD) during an impending medical mission in the country.

Rheumatic heart disease impacts over 39 million people globally and causes nearly 300,000 deaths per year. RHD is the result of frequent, untreated streptococcal throat infections in childhood that ultimately cause the body’s immune system to repeatedly damage heart valves. It is completely preventable, yet the majority of the world’s children still live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions that predispose them to RHD. Most patients present with advanced valvular heart disease. For example, in Uganda, an RHD registry includes over 600 children with clinical RHD, of which nearly 40% die within four years and the median survival time from enrollment in the registry is only nine months. For these patients, heart surgery is the only viable solution for long-term survival and normal quality of life.

Patricia: 9-year-old from Gulu

Patricia: 9-year-old from Gulu (northern Uganda), had mitral valve replacement and was doing well on a recent follow-up visit at her home.

The scheduled trip from Washington was part of a nearly 20-year partnership** between doctors, nurses, researchers and other medical staff in the United States, including Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of cardiology, and and Pranava Sinha, M.D.,pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Uganda Heart Institute in Kampala, Uganda. The partnership aims to tackle RHD head-on. It provides surgical skill transfer, allows for treatment of more complex patients, and increases sustainable surgical capacity for Uganda’s RHD patients over time. As a result, over the last 15 years more than 1,000 children have received lifesaving heart surgery in Uganda, with the Uganda Heart Institute (UHI) performing one to two heart valve surgeries every two weeks over the last few years.

Jackline: 12-year-old from Gulu

Jackline: 12-year-old from Gulu, had mitral valve repair and aortic valve replacement. Jackline and Patricia were diagnosed through one of our research programs and benefit from our novel telehealth program, which helps connect patients from remote parts of Uganda to specialists at UHI.

COVID-19 was changing the current plan, however. Travel between countries was limited, and the team from the U.S. wouldn’t have been permitted to leave the U.S. and return according to schedule. The trip, and the support teams who were scheduled to arrive to help with the surgeries, were cancelled. The U.S. team members who had already arrived in Uganda were sent home after helping their UHI colleagues set up and prepare for the surgeries as much as possible. Knowing that patients and families were counting on the surgery mission to go forward after waiting for months or years to have surgery for heart valve disease, UHI decided not to cancel the majority of the surgeries. Instead, for the first time, they planned and successfully completed five valve-related cases in a single week – several of them quite complex. The cardiologists and cardiac surgeons from Children’s National who were supposed to be in-country for these procedures were forced to limit their in person assistance to the set-up activities the week prior to surgery and telehealth consult during the procedures.

“It was hard not to be able to stay  and work with the UHI team to help these families,” says Dr. Sable. “But we are so proud of the UHI team for meeting this challenge on their own. We knew they had the skills to perform at this volume and complexity. It’s a proud moment to see the team accomplish this major milestone, and to see the patients they cared for thrive.”

The patients are the most important outcome: The five who had successful open-heart surgery are all doing well, either on their way to recovery or already discharged to their communities, where they will, for the first time in memory, be able to play, exercise and go to school or work.

Longer term, this success demonstrates the UHI medical team’s ability to manage greater surgical capacity even when surgical missions from the U.S. resume. The partnership’s goal is to complete at least 1,000 annual operations (both pediatric and adult), with the majority being performed by the local team. Having this capacity available will mean the difference between life and death for many children and adults who have RHD in Uganda and the surrounding countries.

**This work is supported by the Edwards Life Sciences/Thoracic Surgery Foundation, the Emirates Airline Foundation, Samaritan’s Purse Children’s Heart Project and Gift of Life International.

Dr.-Jonas.-WSPCHS

Snapshot: The Sixth Scientific Meeting of the World Society for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery

Dr.-Jonas.-WSPCHS

Dr. Richard Jonas shows surgical advancements using 3D heart models, which participants could bring back to their host institutions.

On July 22, 2018, more than 700 cardiac specialists met in Orlando, Fla. for the Sixth Scientific Meeting of the World Society for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery (WSPCHS 2018).

The five-day conference hosted a mix of specialists, ranging from cardiothoracic surgeons, cardiologists and cardiac intensivists, to anesthesiologists, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, representing 49 countries and six continents.

To advance the vision of WSPCHS – that every child born with a congenital heart defect should have access to appropriate medical and surgical care – the conference was divided into eight tracks: cardiac surgery, cardiology, anesthesia, critical care, nursing, perfusion, administration and training.

Richard Jonas, M.D., outgoing president of WSPCHS and the division chief of cardiac surgery at Children’s National Health System, provided the outgoing presidential address, delivered the keynote lecture on Transposition of the Great Arteries (TGA) and guided a surgical skills lab with printed 3-D heart models.

Other speakers from Children’s National include:

  • Gil Wernovsky, M.D., a cardiac critical care specialist, presented on the complex physiology of TGA, as well as long-term consequences in survivors of neonatal heart surgery, including TGA and single ventricle.
  • Mary Donofrio, M.D., a cardiologist and director of the Fetal Heart Program, presented “Prenatal Diagnosis: Improving Accuracy and Planning Delivery for babies with TGA,” “Systemic Venous Abnormalities in the Fetus,” “Intervention for Fetal Lesions Causing High Output Heart Failure” and “Fetal Cardiac Care – Can We Improve Outcomes by Altering the Natural History of Disease?”
  • Gerard Martin, M.D., a cardiologist and medical director of global services, presented “Is the Arterial Switch as Good as We Thought It Would Be?” and “Impact, MAPIT, NCPQIC – How and Why We Should All Embrace Quality Metrics.”
  • Pranava Sinha, M.D., a cardiac surgeon, presented the abstract “Cryopreserved Valved Femoral Vein Homografts for Right Ventricular Outflow Tract Reconstruction in Infants.”

Participants left with knowledge about how to diagnose and treat complex congenital heart disease, and an understanding of the long-term consequences of surgical management into adulthood. In addition, they received training regarding standardized practice models, new strategies in telemedicine and collaborative, multi-institutional research.

“It was an amazing experience for me to bring my expertise to a conference which historically concentrated on surgical and interventional care and long-term follow-up,” says Dr. Donofrio. “The collaboration between the fetal and postnatal care teams including surgeons, interventionalists and intensive care doctors enables new strategies to be developed to care for babies with CHD before birth. Our hope is that by intervening when possible in utero and by planning for specialized care in the delivery room, we can improve outcomes for our most complex patients”.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Florida Board of Nursing, American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Program, American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion provided continuing medical credits for eligible providers.

“I was so proud to be a member of the Children’s National team at this international conference,” notes Dr. Wernovsky. “We had to the opportunity to share our experience in fetal cardiology, outpatient cardiology, cardiac critical care, cardiac nursing and cardiac surgery with a worldwide audience, including surgical trainees, senior cardiovascular surgeons and the rest of the team members necessary to optimally care for babies and children with complex CHD. In addition, members of the nursing staff shared their research about advancements in the field. It was quite a success – both for our team and for all of the participants.”