HANCOCK COUNTY — In developed countries, when parents find out their child has a congenital heart defect, the next step is usually finding out treatment options.

For those in developing or war-torn countries, doctors sometimes tell parents to just enjoy what time they have left with their child, said Stephanie Kinnaman, a member of the Rotary Club of Greenfield.

Each year, Rotary, an international service organization, spearheads Gift of Life, which works to help children all over the world receive treatment for heart disease. This effort includes identifying people, from newborn age to young adults, in need of treatment and bringing them to hospitals with the ability to accomplish the needed surgery, Kinnaman said.

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The Rotary Club of Greenfield has a special relationship with the Riley Hospital for Children, and the Gift of Life Riley Heart team has performed 290 heart surgeries since its inception in 1999.

In 2015, the Gift of Life Riley Heart Team brought four children in need of heart operations to the Riley Hospital for Children. The next planned event for the Vocational Training Team is to travel to Amman, Jordan, to perform operations on 10 refugee children from Syria and Iraq.

Living with a congenital heart defect has extremely negative affects on a person’s quality of life, Kinnaman said. Children they treat are often short of breath, small, thin and have trouble walking.

“One teenager we operated on last year was Syrian, 14 years old and incredibly skinny,” she said. “She was blue all over and so weak, she could hardly walk. These kids, if not operated on, they die a miserable death.”

Tony Campbell was the Rotary district governor when he learned about Gift of Life and brought the idea to the state. Since then, young people needing treatment for heart disease have been identified by the group in Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, and the Ivory Coast. The group has taken 26 trips in 17 years in order to identify and treat children with heart defects.

Now the chairman of the Gift of Life auction, Campbell has stepped back from leading the team.

“I’ve been a long-time founder and chairman,” he said. “It’s time to pass it on and keep the program vibrant. It’s a legacy I’m very proud of.”

Kinnaman, a physician, has flown with the team to Uganda five times and to Jordan three times. She joined Rotary because of Gift of Life, she said — her father was a Rotarian, and she learned about the group through his involvement.

She attended the third Gift of Life auction fundraiser event in 2001. She was pregnant with her son, and imagining the horror of being unable to heal her child spurred her in part to join the nonprofit organization.

Since 2010, she has served as the Vocational Training Team leader in a pilot program that uses grant funding to train and educate physicians in developing countries to be able to perform these life-saving surgeries. She has written several of the grant applications herself.

“I want to be the eyes and ears for all of these people,” she said. “It’s a privilege to try to report on how it’s all made possible.”

Greenfield’s Gift of Life team is special, because its members are not only raising money to make these life-saving surgeries happen, they are also there meeting and serving the people who need their help, she said.

“We have a hand in every child’s care,” she said.

Pull Quote

“One teenager we operated on last year was Syrian, 14 years old, and incredibly skinny. She was blue all over and so weak she could hardly walk. Her oxygen saturation was in the 30s. These kids, if not operated on, they die a miserable death.” 

-Stephanie Kinnaman, leader of the Vocational Training Team, Gift of Life Riley Heart Team. 

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.