Helping Little Hearts Beat Stronger
If I am haunted by the deaths of soldiers in a train wreck long ago, I have also been shaped by the lives and illnesses of children I knew when I worked at the nationally-famous medical center in my town. In 1984 I was one of the founders of the Children’s Heart Program at Geisinger Medical Center – the medical center that President Barack Obama and many others have held up as a standard for American health care. Between 1989 and 1998 that program brought more than 30 dying children from Third World countries to Pennsylvania, gave them free open-heart surgery, and returned them as completely healthy children to their lives and families.
Heart problems are the most common birth defects, whether here in America, in Jamaica, in Colombia, or in any similarly impoverished nation. Eight out of every 1,000 children who survive birth have heart problems ranging from minor defects to life-threatening catastrophes. In America newborns who have heart problems get lifesaving open-heart surgery in modern hospitals. In Third World countries children born with serious heart problems simply die, sometimes quickly but often after spending years as incapacitated invalids, because there are no specialized hospitals and surgeons to save them.
Over the dozen years that I coordinated the Children’s Heart Program, I sat with mothers and watched through the night with children, and I buried one child – the only child who died while I was involved.
I am in no way a medical person, but that experience over all those years has given me a special feeling for children. They were too sick and too weak to walk across my livingroom floor. Some were born with half a heart. One needed to have open-heart surgery three times before he could survive. They couldn’t smile. They could hardly live.
The Children’s Heart Program continues today, more than 25 years after we began it with the 10,000 members of the 250 Kiwanis service clubs in Pennsylvania, and it has saved many more lives. Beyond its work with sick children it has stimulated thousands of men and women to participate in something bigger than themselves – to
think more about what they, as individuals, can do to help others. Ten thousand Kiwanians across Pennsylvania became 10,000 points of light because of the Children’s Heart Program.
And, in many ways too, the Children’s Heart Program has led today to our work with Wheelchair Engineers.