From the heart

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Inspired by San’s post-cardiac surgery care, Lana Jeavons-Fellows joins Open Heart International

Lana Jeavons-Fellows worked in corporate communications at the Sydney Adventist Hospital for close to three years telling the stories of its humanitarian aid organisation, Open Heart International (OHI), but she never imagined that she would one day volunteer with the team.

Open Heart International has travelled to developing countries around the world since 1986 providing more than 5,000 free cardiac, ophthalmic, orthopaedic and women’s health surgeries. The stories of these doctors and nurses from across Australia who donate their time, skills and annual leave and who give the most precious gift of all, life, are inspiring.

Lacking clinical expertise but determined to support these incredible humanitarians in some other way, Ms Jeavons-Fellows climbed Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.

After raising $3,500 from her climb, Ms Jeavons-Fellows was invited by Open Heart International’s project co-ordinator, Fiona Hyde, to join the OHI cardiac team in Cambodia as an ‘arts and crafts coordinator’.

“So before I knew it, I was at the charity-run Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap meeting some of the volunteers and patients I had heard so much about.” The team was made up of 21 volunteers including surgeons, a perfusionist, a physiotherapist, anaesthetists, and theatre, intensive care and ward nurses. During the seven-day visit, the team expected to operate on as many as 15 children who suffered from heart conditions like holes in the heart and who would otherwise die.

“Armed with pens, pencils, stickers and colourful paper and having prepared a range of crafts, it was my job for the week to get the children excited about getting out of bed, and to make them smile,” Ms Jeavons- Fellows said.

Life-saving surgery

“I was particularly excited to meet a previous patient from 2013, seven-year-old Vath, who had captured the hearts of the team with his cheeky smile and playful demeanour. For children like Vath, whose parents are rice farmers and earn around $7 per day, these activities were special, but more importantly they were fun physiotherapy. Children need to be active as quickly as possible post open-heart surgery as it helps with their recovery.”

Ms Jeavons-Fellows said seeing the joy on the children’s faces 48 hours after surgery as they coloured-in pictures, when they would have been in physical pain, was magic. Vath was born with a rare and complex congenital heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot and wasn’t going to survive into adulthood without open-heart surgery.

His condition, which in Australia is identified and repaired at birth or early infancy, involves four heart defects: a large ventricular septal defect, pulmonary stenosis, right ventricular hypertrophy and an overriding aorta. It occurs in approximately five in every 10,000 babies. In Cambodia there is limited free access to cardiac treatment and without Open Heart International, Vath wouldn’t have had a chance at living a normal life.

When the team first met Vath he had bluish-coloured skin, clubbed fingers and toes and extreme shortness of breath. It was clear his heart wasn’t supplying enough oxygen to the blood. He desperately needed surgery, but the team was afraid he was too weak to survive such an invasive procedure.

During Open Heart International’s trip in 2013 they decided to maximise his chance of survival by correcting one of his four conditions with a BT shunt to get him well enough for full corrective surgery this year.

Vath’s second open-heart operation was long and complicated. “We were all praying for a positive outcome during the five-long hours he was under the knife,” Ms Jeavons-Fellows said. “During his procedure it showed how much the patients meant to the volunteers. It wasn’t just routine, or their job. The genuine care, compassion and love was moving. That care is what drives them to volunteer year after year.” Thanks to Open Heart International, Vath pulled through and is well on his way to a full recovery and living a healthy and normal life.

Ms Jeavons-Fellows said 11 other children also had their lives saved “thanks to these great unsung Aussie heroes”. “Now when I tell the stories of these incredible volunteers, I can really understand why they call themselves ‘Open Heart’ International. It’s not just a surgical or anatomical reference, it is the way they live their life.”

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