Wed | Jan 22, 2020

Help for hearts - American entity provides free surgery for 10 Jamaicans

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2019 | 12:28 AM

Kerrian Clarke-Wilson and Vanessa Rowe are breathing easier today having benefited from surgeries to treat the potentially fatal rheumatic heart disease.

The two were among 10 persons who benefited from surgeries carried out by a team from the Organisation for International Development, (OID) at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI), recently.

Clarke-Wilson, who is 38 years old, said that she had no idea that she had the disease until 2016.

“Apparently, I had it from I was a child and I did not know. I started to have shortness of breath and a lot of attacks where I could not breathe. I was even short of breath during sexual intercourse. If I eat liver or kidney it acted up.

“I thought it was an allergy, but I’ve never had allergy to liver, so I didn’t go to the doctor immediately. I started doing a little exercise thinking I was putting on too much weight but when it was still happening that’s when I checked it,” said Clarke-Wilson.

The St Catherine-based teacher said that she was devastated when her doctors gave her the diagnosis.

“At first, I didn’t know what was rheumatic fever and I was told to avoid getting pregnant and that was devastating for me, because I had just got married the year before,” said Clarke-Wilson.

She was told that she needed surgery, as the condition would only get worse over the years.

When she was told that the surgery would cost $1.6 million, which she could not afford, it was a relief to know that she would get help from the OID.

“I feel really pleased that it happened. I wish it could continue, so that other persons can benefit. I give God thanks that He made this mission possible and He answered my prayers,” added Clarke-Wilson.

Shortness of Breath

Rowe also started having shortness of breath in 2016, shortly after giving birth to her son.

“I found out that I couldn’t really walk very far. The first doctor I went to told me that I had a trace of asthma, and so I went for a second opinion. The test results showed that I had rheumatic heart disease.

“At first, when I heard it was a bit shocking knowing that I did distance running and all that in high school and I didn’t have any breathing issues. But the doctor explained to me what could be the cause, and I wasn’t fretting at all, because I’m the type of positive person,” said Rowe.

The 23-year-old from Mahoe Hill in Clarendon said that while she was on medication, the pills seemed to be helping, but she could not play football with her son, or walk for very long, so the surgery was timely.

Now over the hurdle Rowe has a message for persons who might be diagnosed with the disease.

“I want to tell them don’t give up. There is always somebody out there trying to help you, just have to keep the faith. Continue praying to God even though you are sick, yes, and God can heal you. Even if you don’t have the money, don’t give up,” said Rowe.

The OID, which arranged the surgeries, is based in New York. Its mission is to provide healthcare services to persons who are unable to afford it.

First time in Heart Surgery

While it has carried its medical missions to several countries, this is the first time it has included heart surgery.

One of the coordinators of the OID is Heather Tucker, who grew up in May Pen, Clarendon, and is now the head nurse for Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Montefiore Medical Centre.

According to Tucker, this was something she has always wanted to do.

“I introduced the heart surgery portion of it because that’s my background. I have done a lot of missions with other groups to other countries and so I think it was just time for me to introduce it to Jamaica. I have been doing it for 15 years and wanted to help persons who cannot afford heart surgery,” said Tucker.

A team of 16 persons came to Jamaica, which included surgeons and anaesthesiologists. All the equipment and supplies were provided at no cost to the patients.

“We have developed a relationship with the UHWI where we would be coming back again next January, to do more. This is something I have always dreamed of doing for my country, because I know there are people there with a lot of rheumatic fever who need a valve change and I have been doing this all over the world,” added Tucker.

What is rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is a condition in which permanent damage to heart valves is caused by rheumatic fever. The heart valve is damaged by a disease process that generally begins with a strep throat caused by bacteria called Streptococcus, and may eventually cause rheumatic fever.

Why is rheumatic fever a concern?

Rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease, can affect many connective tissues, especially in the heart, joints, skin, or brain. The infection often causes heart damage, particularly scarring of the heart valves, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. The damage may resolve on its own, or it may be permanent, eventually causing congestive heart failure (a condition in which the heart cannot pump out all of the blood that enters it, which leads to an accumulation of blood in the vessels leading to the heart and fluid in the body tissues).