If you stand in a quiet room with a heart-valve surgery patient you might hear it… click… click… click… It’s the rhythmic percussion of a life saved; the sound of a replacement plastic heart valve opening and closing as the blood rushes through the body.
Heart surgery doesn’t come cheap. In the Australian public hospital system, for example, a coronary angiogram—a diagnostic test for narrowed or blocked arteries—costs more than $9000. A heart transplant? $140,000. But in Australia, of course, these pricey procedures are covered by the taxpayer, so the patients themselves do not have to pay.
Imagine though, that a person with a common heart condition—a dodgy heart valve, an irregular heartbeat or narrowed arteries—was living in a developing country where healthcare is not a free public service and medical technology and expertise are limited? Basically it’s a death sentence.
In 1983 intensive care nurse Russell Lee went to visit his missionary parents in Tonga. After witnessing the lack of surgical options for people dying of rheumatic heart disease, Russell returned to Australia determined to make a difference. Together with his colleagues from the Sydney Adventist Hospital—Mr Rudi Morgan and Dr John Wallace—Russell launched “Operation Open Heart for Tonga” in 1985 and took a small group of Sydney Adventist Hospital medical and nursing staff to Tonga the following year, aiming to provide life-saving cardiac surgery to those in need.
Fast-forward to today, when hundreds of volunteers with extraordinary passion and commitment give freely of their time and expertise to provide hope to thousands living in developing countries under the name Open Heart International (OHI). The Sydney Adventist Hospital remains an important supporter of the charity, but volunteers now come from hospitals all around Australia and overseas. The focus has been maintained on the South Pacific: Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, etc. But teams now travel regularly to parts of Africa, Asia and, just last year, Bolivia in South America. And OHI’s repertoire has extended beyond heart surgery to treating burns contractures, eye conditions and uterine prolapse.
It’s important to OHI that the help they provide doesn’t produce dependence. On each medical outreach trip, they work together with local medical professionals, passing on skills and strategies. In some locations, such as Port Moresby, for example, it’s already looking likely that some day soon, OHI will be able to hand over the reins completely and seek new opportunities to make a life-saving difference elsewhere.
To find out more about how you can support Open Heart International, visit ohi.org.au.