Viewers Moved By HEARTT Doctors Working in Liberia to Save Lives

Nov 29, 2011 7:29pm

“Nightline” producers Katie Hinman and Bartley Price and I have been touched and overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest and support for a story we broadcast on Friday night as a special edition of “Nightline,” “Giving Thanks, Giving Back.”  

Part of ABC News’ Global Health series, we focused the extraordinary work being down by a team of U.S. doctors at a struggling hospital, half way around the world in Liberia. 

Watch part 1 of our report here:

 

Watch part 2 of our report here:

 

Here are a few of the comments we received from viewers: 

Steve Kelly writes that he is from Liberia:  ”I am so touched by this wonderful story especially as a Liberian living in the USA”

Jackie from Wisconsin: “I bet you can still feel that beautiful baby in your arms.. the Heartt Foundation – an amazing group of docs”

Saraya Wintersmith tweets ” kudos, great piece on the lack of health care in Liberia and the US doctors there who are doing what they can to help”

Cedric McCay writes “great story on the dedication of health professionals to make a difference”

Arash Shirazai writes “great reporting on impressive group of doctors in Liberia on Nightline.  Is there more info to donate supplies and money?”

Bill Thyberg says “amazing Liberia story, thank you”

From Hawthorne, California, Ryan Medrano said, “great piece on the American docs in Liberia! This is the reason I never miss an episode of Nightline.”

As we reported, the HEARTT Foundation was created to bring together doctors from an array of the nation’s top medical schools to Liberia to provide medical care at the John F. Kennedy Hospital as well as provide clinical instruction to the next generation of Liberian doctors, nurses and others.   

For more information about the HEARTT Foundation: http://www.hearttfoundation.org/

For more information about their “Helping Babies Breathe” program: http://www.helpingbabiesbreathe.org/

The founder of the HEARTT Foundation is Dr. James Sirleaf, currently an emergency room doctor in Bridgeport, Conn. and the son of Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  In 2006 Dr. Sirleaf went back to Liberia for his mother’s inauguration and was inspired to help heal the nation’s broken health care system.  Spending his vacation time to volunteer at JFK Hospital, the nation’s major medical center, led him to create the HEARTT Foundation, which now partners with nearly 20 medical schools across the country — including Harvard, Yale, University of Massachusetts, Mount Sinai, and the University of Chicago to provide doctors.  Now more than 70 American doctors a year take turns going to JFK with the HEARTT program.

We talked to Dr. Sirleaf in the Bridgeport ER about his why he founded the group and the impact it’s already having in Liberia.  With him was Dr. Simon Kotlyar the Director of Global Health at the Yale School of Medicine who has been instrumental in the creation of the HEARTT program. Watch the video:

 

 

The fact that the JFK Hospital is up and running at all is extraordinary in itself.  The hospital’s administrator, an incredible woman named Dr. Wvannie McDonald, tells me wistfully of a day when she was a young doctor there, a time when JFK had a paging system and central air conditioning, when fountains bubbled at the front door. That day is long gone.

At one point during the war, 20,000 people sought refuge on the hospital grounds. The operating room had a hole in the ceiling open to the sky. Machine guns poked out of the windows. The JFK hospital became known as the “Just For Killing” Hospital.

Along with many of those who could, Dr. McDonald left Liberia during the war. She thought she’d be able to return after a few years, but as the war raged on, it became clear that she could not go home. She made a life for herself and her family in Indiana. But that came to an end in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia. Dr. McDonald remembers a cold winter’s day when the phone rang and the president asked her to come home and bring JFK back to life. She said she felt she had no choice.

It was a daunting assignment. The hospital had no running water and no electricity. The medical equipment had all been looted, as had the beds and even the linens. The wounds of war were everywhere. And worst of all, there were virtually no doctors left. The World Health Organization estimated that there was one doctor for every 100,000 Liberians. In the U.S. the number is closer to one for every 200. Watch the video with Dr. McDonald:

 

 

Not only are HEARTT doctors providing much needed care, their mission is broader: to teach the next generation of health care workers, not just new doctors — whose numbers graduating each year from the medical school are increasing — but also midwives, nurses and physician assistants.

HEARTT doctors provide direct clinical instruction, but, even more importantly, they serve as role models of excellence, both clinically and professionally. Due to the lack of resources and lapses in education for the duration of the war, in expectations have are often been low for what can be done for the patient. HEARTT doctors report that while their Liberian colleagues are extremely hard working, smart and dedicated, they were often discouraged from the years of being able to provide very little for their patients.

But as the overall health system improves and providers have more tools to fight disease, HEARTT volunteers work hard to help “raise the bar” of what can be done. Thus, both improving clinical care for patients, and the morale of the health care providers who then take on more ownership and fulfillment in their work.

A final note:  In the “Nightline” special, we told the story of a baby named Kartee who needs heart surgery not available anywhere in Liberia.   For those interested in how they might help Kartee, and many have asked, please contact the HEARTT Foundation, at their website noted above.

It was a privilege to tell the story of the American doctors who volunteer their time and their talent to help people who desperately need it, to spotlight the HEARTT Foundation which is truly making a difference, and to witness first-hand the extraordinary dedication of the Liberian doctors and nurses who everyday strive to make life better for their patients.  The care being offered at the JFK Hospital is a testimony to human resilience and compassion.  To talent and perseverance.  Our thanks to all of you who have responded so generously.

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