Before her lifesaving surgery at Health City Cayman Islands, 2-year-old Yenifer Lopez Giron complained of a constant pinching pain in her chest, caused by a hole in her heart. Her mother Cecilia said they waited nearly the entirety of her daughter’s life for help, not knowing if it would ever come.
In the Cayman Islands, the Have a Heart organization is constantly looking for children like Yenifer – children in need of heart surgery, children who need help. The nonprofit has been around for only two years, but to date it has helped 104 children from all over the world receive free, life-saving heart surgeries at Health City Cayman Islands.
A doctor in their native El Salvador helped connect the Giron family to Operation Blessings International, which recently worked in partnership with Have a Heart Cayman Islands to bring five children from the small Central American country to Grand Cayman for heart surgery.
“As a mom, I have no words to explain how my daughter improved,” Ms. Giron said days after her daughter’s surgery.
Ms. Giron said her tears from sadness, from not knowing if her daughter would have a healthy future, are now gone, replaced with tears of joy and thanks.
Have a Heart Cayman Islands is committed to facilitating life-saving cardiac procedures for children from around the world, regardless of race, sex, religion or social or socioeconomic status. Their mission is simple: to help as many children as possible. Next year, the foundation aims to provide at least one surgery a day to a child in need.
Have a Heart has brought children from several countries in the region, including Jamaica, Haiti, El Salvador, and some from as far away as Bolivia and Mongolia. One child was brought from Kenya, after all other options had been exhausted in that region.
News of what the organization has done is spread primarily through word of mouth – children have been connected to Have a Heart through shared Facebook posts and newspaper articles.
“We know we’re just at the beginning of something incredible,” Have a Heart manager Jennifer McCarthy said. “It’s not just another story, it’s not just another nonprofit. It’s an extraordinary thing.”
That extraordinary thing began with Harry Chandi, a businessman based in Cayman who is originally from India.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Chandi was walking through the halls of a hospital in Manipal city in India, where his father was having emergency heart surgery. His father’s heart surgeon was Devi Shetty, known for being Mother Teresa’s personal physician.
As he was waiting to hear how the surgery went, he ran into a woman who worked as a volunteer, raising money for children who could not afford heart surgeries. Mr. Chandi promised to fund four children’s surgeries, but he would go on to help many more children.
Four months after that meeting, Mr. Chandi and other like-minded individuals, including Dr. Shetty, came together to start Have a Heart India. More than 8,000 Indian children – who could not have afforded such medical procedures – have since received life-saving heart surgeries thanks to Have a Heart India.
Shortly after Dr. Shetty’s hospital, Health City Cayman Islands, opened in Grand Cayman in early 2014, Have a Heart Cayman was formed.
“When they come, they’re blue, they can’t walk; and then the first batch of kids we got from Haiti – they’d never seen running water in their life,” Mr. Chandi said. “The biggest high you can get is when a kid comes with no chance to live and you see when they come out, they’re completely transformed.”
Have a Heart has no administrative overhead and no paid staff, so every dollar goes to help a child get surgery.
The organization partners with local and international organizations to provide the surgeries. Partners include Health City, Ascension, Samaritan’s Purse International Relief, Haiti Cardiac Alliance, World Pediatric Project, Impact 345, Digicel and FSH Design.
Have a Heart and its sponsors subsidize approximately half of the cost of the surgeries, while Health City Cayman Islands bears the rest of the cost, according to the hospital’s marketing director, Shomari Scott.
Ms. McCarthy said Health City essentially let the organization run a tab until sponsorships came through to start helping cover the costs of the surgeries.
“No other hospital in the world would do that,” Ms. McCarthy said.
The children who are brought to Health City for surgery are put under the care of some of the hospitals’ physicians. Parents of children helped by Have a Heart are quick to mention not only the skill of the doctors and other staff at the hospital, but also their gentleness and kindness – the way they care.
Chief cardiac surgeon Dr. Binoy Chattuparambil is one of the physicians who cares for the children brought by Have a Heart.
According to Ms. McCarthy, Dr. Chattuparambil – better known as “Dr. Binoy” – is so humble, he does not want any thanks after he saves a child’s life. She said he considers himself a conduit – a tool through which a higher power can do its work.
While the children are in the hospital, before and after surgery, Dr. Chattuparambil does not want to be far from them, Ms. McCarthy said, so he basically ends up sleeping at the hospital for six to seven months at a time.
“He won’t leave,” Ms. McCarthy said. “And so many doctors here are like that.”
She explained that Dr. Shetty’s philosophy, which he passes down to his doctors and everyone else he works with, is that “if you have a skill that can help, it’s your moral obligation to help.”
Dr. Chattuparambil came from Dr. Shetty’s first hospital in Bangalore.
“When he started the hospital, he told the surgeons that no child should go without treatment because of a lack of money,” Dr. Chattuparambil said. “We can help them. So that is the principle inculcated into the organization.”
“I am very happy that we’re bringing the same philosophy to this part of the world and helping children with heart disease in the Caribbean, particularly, and in other countries that need this type of help,” he added.
Dr. Chattuparambil explained that the incidence of children’s heart problems is the same in every part of the world, with one in every 150 children born with some type of heart problem. Many of the heart problems, such as tiny holes in the heart, are easily solved with surgery. If the children do not receive medical care, however, they can die.
“There are hundreds of kids waiting for this help from somebody, and they are dying,” Dr. Chattuparambil said.
He said some of the children who come to Health City for surgery exhibit signs of starvation when they arrive – sometimes the doctors have to wait two or three weeks before performing surgery as they concentrate on improving a child’s nutrition.
After surgery, though, Dr. Chattuparambil said, the improvement is obvious.
“Their eyes will become much more bright, they will be walking around with the other kids here,” Dr. Chattuparambil said. “That’s what gives us the strength to do all these things.”