The Haitian heart operation

Dozens of poverty-stricken kids get new lease on life in Cayman

Surgery success story: From left, Jean Frantz Jean Baptiste and his son, Jean Christiano, age 2, Have a Heart Cayman’s Jennifer McCarthy, Elizabeth Jean-Julien, Sherly Delva and her son Anley Valcourt, age 19 months, Barnabas Rinvil and his nephew Makendy, age 2, and Dart security chief Derek Haines made the trip back to Haiti on Saturday. – Photos: Brent Fuller

You’ve probably never heard of Kessy Acceme, but he has helped give 64 dying Haitian children another chance at life since late 2014 through surgeries performed in the Cayman Islands.

The kids, most of who suffer from congenital heart ailments, were operated on at the Health City Cayman Islands hospital within the past two years. However, without Mr. Acceme – a social worker – and his employer, the Haiti Cardiac Alliance, on the ground in Port-au-Prince, the children probably would not find their way here.

Speaking to the Cayman Compass at the Port-au-Prince airport on Saturday, Mr. Acceme was well aware that a few of those children – some just toddlers or babies – had already missed their chance.

“In the past few months, we’ve had five kids die waiting for surgery,” Mr. Acceme said. “But it’s just beautiful when kids go to the Cayman Islands for surgery and they come back healed and happy. They can do anything they want in life.”

Saturday’s visit to Port-au-Prince brought the happier version of this story.

Senior Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Sripadh Upadhya of Health City Cayman Islands examined nearly 50 young patients per day in Port-au-Prince. Sixty of them were chosen to come to Grand Cayman for medical procedures.
Senior Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Sripadh Upadhya of Health City Cayman Islands examined nearly 50 young patients per day in Port-au-Prince. Sixty of them were chosen to come to Grand Cayman for medical procedures.

“I just have a big, big thanks to say to everyone,” said Marie Jean-Julien, speaking through an interpreter on the flight back to Haiti on Saturday morning. Her 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Jean-Julien, recently underwent a corrective procedure for heart disease at Health City Cayman Islands.

Marie said the change in her daughter following the medical procedure had been astounding. She said before the procedure, her daughter’s lips would sometimes turn blue, her face was ashen and she went through periods where she could not, or would not, eat.

“I didn’t know before from day-to-day if [Elizabeth] would die, she could not run, she could not walk too far, not too much. I thank God and everyone for everything,” she said.

Elizabeth, still a bit thin but now looking like she would not be out of place in a Cayman Islands high school, said she plans to go back to school in Haiti after a short rest with her family. Regarding her future plans, Elizabeth said, “I would like to be a doctor for children.”

Four children – Elizabeth and three toddlers between 19 months and 3 years old – were brought back to Haiti on Saturday after successful procedures in Grand Cayman. The children and their families traveled on a plane owned by the Dart group of companies.

A number of previous journeys, shuttling young heart patients back and forth between Haiti and Health City Cayman Islands, have been made on an aircraft owned by Digicel. That plane was out of commission for repairs last weekend, so “interim” air service was provided, complete with Dart’s head of security Derek Haines, who stepped in as impromptu flight attendant for the trip, serving the Haitian families food and beverages.

Barnabas Rinvil and his nephew Makendy pose with Holly Thompson of Impact 345 in Grand Cayman just before takeoff Saturday.
Barnabas Rinvil and his nephew Makendy pose with Holly Thompson of Impact 345 in Grand Cayman just before takeoff Saturday.

While there, the flight picked up three other Haitian children, two 1-year-olds and a 15-year-old, who will be the next group to receive treatment in Grand Cayman.

The bureaucratic and logistical problems in the impoverished Caribbean nation make getting children who will die if they do not receive proper medical treatment to overseas facilities in time to receive treatment a monumentally difficult task. Mr. Acceme said almost all of these families have never left Haiti, some have never even left their ancestral villages, and the simple act of acquiring a passport through the current processes may take more time than the young patients have left.

Nonetheless, the Haiti Cardiac Alliance has managed to get about 200 children successful medical procedures around the world, with about one-third of those at Health City since late 2014.

Mr. Acceme said there are about 400 others he knows of who need assistance and likely many more who are unknown to officials. The group of 400 are the patients who have been identified from previous visits to Haiti hospitals. Those hospitals work with Mr. Acceme and the foundation to see if there are any international facilities available to take them.

“Once [the hospitals] find kids with a heart problem, they call us,” he said.

To send young patients to Grand Cayman, Mr. Acceme contacts Health City doctors and Jennifer McCarthy, the director of nonprofit Have a Heart Cayman Islands. Ms. McCarthy, former operations manager of HospiceCare Cayman, now works from an office in Health City on fundraising and logistical efforts for the heart surgeries. The medical professionals make an annual trip to Haiti to pre-screen potential patients.

On the most recent trip to Haiti, Ms. McCarthy said she went along with Health City’s chief pediatric cardiologist to screen about 150 potential patients for the surgery in Cayman.

This might generously be described as a heart-breaking process. Ms. McCarthy said there are some children with such severe conditions, mostly requiring heart replacement surgery, that Health City is unable to assist. Other children aren’t chosen because they are too young and doctors hope they will “grow out of” their heart ailment.

Among the 150 potential patients, about 60 were chosen. They are the ones who will hope to travel to Grand Cayman for medical procedures within the next several months, if they can make it in time.

“Once they’re prioritized, then it’s down to who can get a passport and [which cases] are most urgent,” Ms. McCarthy said.

She said seeing the heart screenings for 150 sick children in Port-au-Prince brought a feeling of “utter hopelessness.” However, she said she did make contact while there with a young woman who had recently undergone heart surgery at Health City.

“I hear someone yelling my name and then she comes over and gives me a big hug,” she said, seeing the girl was now healthy and happy. “That’s when you say ‘OK, that’s why we’re doing this.’”

Ms. McCarthy said Have a Heart Cayman provides some funding through charitable donations and grants for medical supplies, equipment and the like, for the surgeries. To this point, Health City is not making any money on the patients from Haiti and other locales around the globe. If the families are able to contribute anything for the surgeries, they do so, she said.

“Every dollar we save means more lives saved,” she said.

Operational support

Another key worker in the Haiti Cardiac Alliance is Steeve Andre, a 22-year-old who grew up in an orphanage and who learned to speak fluent English in school.

Mr. Andre has been going back and forth with the Haitian families to Grand Cayman for the past year, serving as the volunteer translator during the families’ stays – typically anywhere from three to five weeks.

Most Haitians speak a dialect derived from French known as Creole and even French speakers struggle understand it, Ms. McCarthy said. A few of the Haitian family members speak broken English, but that is rare, she said. Without Mr. Andre and other interpreters who volunteer, Cayman Islands medical personnel and volunteers would not always be able to understand the visitors.

Mr. Andre said he has been kept busy over the past year, always receiving calls from the families at Health City Cayman Islands.

“Most of the time I have to stay at the hospital because they will always need me for the kids,” he said. “Sometimes, when I have a break, I go watch football with the nurses.

“I feel very, very good, very prideful to help the Haitian kids because that’s where I’m from. I feel very happy for the care they receive.”

Many of the families are so poor they need basic items like clothes and toiletries during their stay in Cayman. The group Impact 345, mostly made up of local teenagers, have stepped in with fundraising and donation drives seeking clothes, toys or other items the children might need or request.

Fifteen-year-old Holly Thompson, an Impact group member, made her first trip to Haiti on Saturday to see what things were like there. She said her parents were a bit nervous about her going, but she felt it would be a “good experience” to see the children.

“The poorest places and poorest people in the Cayman Islands would be like kings and queens in Haiti,” Ms. Thompson said. “Every person I know who’s my age wants to help once they’ve seen what these kids have to deal with.”