December 4, 2009

Honduran boy’s surgical odyssey leads to Vanderbilt

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Cristian Chavez, 10, and his mother, Maria, wait to be seen by the medical staff during a pre-operative visit in late October. (all photos by Joe Howell)

Honduran boy’s surgical odyssey leads to Vanderbilt

There were lots of smiles, hugs and handshakes exchanged. It was a day 10-year-old Cristian Chavez and his mother, Maria, had waited years for: finally learning that Cristian's damaged heart was healed.

On Monday, Nov. 30, after a quick examination of the scar indicative of open heart surgery that runs down Cristian's chest, pediatric cardiologist Donald Moore, M.D., happily declared, “it looks perfect.”

Nearly three weeks earlier, Cristian underwent eight hours of complex surgery to repair a heart defect he was born with. Called Tetralogy of Fallot, the defect is a combination of abnormalities that affect the structure of the heart and its outflow to the lungs.

Left untreated, Cristian would have experienced progressive loss of oxygen and, eventually, early death. Cristian already was unable to keep up with his seven brothers and sisters, and did not have the energy to play with his friends.

Cristian is from Puerto Cortes, Honduras, the most important port in Central America. His mother stays at home with her children, and his father works in construction. When Cristian was 3 months old, his mother took him to see the doctor because he had a fever and cough. At that time, the doctor told her that there was something wrong with Cristian's heart.

There were other signs that something was wrong — when he would cry, he would turn purple.

His family did not have the funds or access to the level of medical care needed to correct Cristian's heart defect in Honduras. He was evaluated by a nonprofit organization called Samaritan's Purse and their Children's Heart Project.

After waiting nearly two years, the family learned that doctors at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt had agreed to repair Cristian's heart at no cost.

In mid-October, Cristian and Maria traveled from Honduras with their interpreter, Maria Rodriguez. After he was evaluated by Moore and pediatric cardiac surgeon Karla Christian, M.D., they settled in at their host family's house to wait for surgery day.

Moore previously contacted his church, Otter Creek Church of Christ, to see if anyone could host the group and Gail Srygley answered the call.

“This is the first time we've done this,” Srygley said. “Cristian is a lovely child, very gentle and appreciative.”

The group spent the days leading up to surgery visiting a pumpkin patch and shopping. Srygley said the boy was fascinated with watching the squirrels scamper around in her yard. He tried playing a little basketball, but quickly tired.

Cristian, the youngest child, is very close to his mother. “His mother is very tender with him,” Srygley said.

While he was in surgery, the boy's mother was very quiet, sometimes teary, and visibly nervous. She was relieved when Christian, the pediatric cardiac surgeon, came to the waiting area after the lengthy procedure to let her know that her son came through very well.

Maria told Christian, “We are very grateful.”

Christian said the boy was doing well the day after surgery, and had the color of a healthy child.

“He was alert and active, looked great and was conversational with his mother. He couldn't look better.”

Christian credited the efforts of the entire surgical, cardiology, anesthesia and ICU teams that made the surgery possible, as well as the approval from Children's Hospital administrators.

“Cristian got the golden ticket,” she said. “There are so many children in need and they all are special, I wish we could do more. International charity care is an important mission and it's been a privilege to work with my team to do this.”

After Moore evaluated the boy in the crowded exam room on Nov. 23, everyone exchanged goodbyes. Soon after Moore left, Christian entered the room and gave the much-anticipated verdict: everyone could go home as planned on Nov. 30.

Cristian can run as soon as he feels up to it, but needs to wait almost 2 months to play soccer, something the boy desperately wants to do. His surgeon explained that the boy's heart was repaired, but it would take time for the incision to heal and for his sternum to fuse back together.

“Thank you for trusting us with your son,” Christian told the boy's mother, Maria. “I know it must be very hard to trust him with strangers.”

Maria replied, “I trusted you and trusted God. Thank you very much for everything you have done for my son.”