GREENFIELD — Megan Ramroop sat in Stephanie Kinnaman’s arms, clutching a neon plush cat and chattering about her trip earlier that day to the zoo.
Over the last three weeks, the 5-year-old from Trinidad had become fast friends with Kinnaman, the Greenfield doctor who helped coordinate a life-saving surgery for Megan and, last week, celebrated its success with members of the local Rotary Club that helped fund the operation.
Kinnaman leads Indiana’s Gift of Life program, which since 1998 has sent teams of doctors to developing countries and brought children to the United States for heart surgeries they desperately need. Up to five children a year can travel to Riley Hospital for Children through Gift of Life, she said.
Story continues below gallery
Megan is the latest patient to come to Indiana through the program, which Kinnaman has chaired since 2011.
Everything happened fast for the little girl and her family. In nine months, they went from not knowing Megan had a heart defect that stood to shorten her life to traveling to the United States from their home in Trinidad for a procedure to repair it at no cost to the family. Now that the weight has been lifted, family members are easing Megan back into the life of a normal 5-year-old as she returns to the island off the coast of Venezuela with her family.
Megan represents the 67th patient brought to Riley for a heart surgery through Gift of Life, while a traveling team of surgeons and doctors just completed its 306th surgery in Amman, Jordan, said Kinnaman.
More than 90 percent of children with congenital heart defects are born in countries without adequate health care options, said Gift of Life International CEO Rob Raylman in February at the Gift of Life Auction, which raised more than $50,000. Gift of Life bridges that gap, bringing children to the U.S. to receive care and sending teams out to developing countries to help train their doctors and nurses as well, he said.
Trinidad faces challenges in treating heart defects, Kinnaman said. There’s no pediatric heart specialist on the island, and only one technician who can perform echocardiography, or sonograms of the heart. Long wait times to see the technician cause delays in being seen — and diagnosed, she said.
When Megan’s parents in December took her to the doctor with a fever and a cough that wouldn’t go away, they were shocked to learn Megan had an atrial septal defect, a hole in the wall between the heart’s upper chambers, and no doctors on the island could fix it. Within two months, Megan’s doctors told them about how Gift of Life could help them, and armed with that knowledge, the family planned a trip to Indiana for Megan to undergo surgery.
“It was a relief,” Megan’s mother said. “It was a bit scary to learn about her defect, initially.”
The family — dad Patrick Ramroop; mom Sara Sampath; Megan and her little brother, Adam, 3 — arrived in Indiana Sept. 2. Just four days later, Dr. Mark Turrentine, a heart surgeon at Riley, performed open-heart surgery to patch the hole between the two upper chambers of her heart. And after just three weeks of recovery at the Ronald McDonald House, Megan and her family got the go-ahead to schedule a flight home.
Though the repair for an atrial septal defect is a simple surgery — as far as heart operations go — the doctors at Riley were still impressed with Megan’s quick recovery, Kinnaman said, noting most open-heart surgery patients take four to six weeks to recover.
Rotary members were there every step of the way. They drove the family to doctor’s appointments, brought them food and cheered them on during a meeting when the little patient came to visit. The help must have felt a little like being pampered to Megan, who despite some nervousness in the hospital told Kinnaman she was enjoying her “vacation.”
Upon returning home, Sampath planned to take things slowly, she said. She decided to give Megan a month at home before sending her to school in November, because Megan has some post-surgery restrictions.
“She loves to roughhouse,” her mother laughed.
Though their stay in Indiana was shorter than expected, Megan and her family still grew close to the Rotary members who spent time with them. Not only did they take the family to tourist destinations like the zoo, members of the local club sat with family members, comforting them, during Megan’s surgery.
Sampath is grateful for the care Megan and their family received during her stay at Riley hospital and the support of local Rotarians — whom she calls family — as well as their family back in Trinidad, she said.
“I’m so thankful for the people praying for us,” she said. “Megan is a blessed child.”
Barbara Anders was one who volunteered to spend time with family members during Megan’s procedure, keeping them company during the three-hour procedure. As soon as she walked into the waiting room, Sara and Patrick were hugging her, thanking her for her support. She felt a connection with them quickly, she said.
They chatted some of the time, but sometimes, no words felt necessary. Anders’ quiet show of support, the reassuring glances or pats on the shoulder, spoke volumes.
It was a comfort the family appreciated, Sampath said.
For Rotarians like president Jeannine Gray, saying goodbye to the family during a recent Rotary meeting was an emotional moment. It doesn’t take long for the visiting families to become a part of Rotarians’ lives, she said.
Social media helps shorten the distance between the families and those involved in Gift of Life, Kinnaman said. She’s watched Gift of Life recipients flourish after receiving those critical surgeries, going on to attend school — which isn’t always possible for youths needing heart surgeries — and become normal kids.
“They always have a special place in all of our hearts,” Kinnaman said.
The Greenfield Rotary Club supports Gift of Life International with fundraisers and volunteers. Here’s a look at how the organizations have helped children with heart defects since the beginning.
1998: the first patient, a child from St. Petersburg, Russia, flies to Indianapolis for a heart surgery at Riley Hospital for Children.
67 children have been brought to Riley since, from Iraq, the Philippines, Trinidad and other countries without heart specialists.
Gift of Life also sends teams of doctors to perform surgeries onsite in locations like Amman, Jordan. 306 surgeries have been performed by Gift of Life teams.
The surgeries are made possible with a more than $238,000 grant, which local Rotarians supported.
An August trip to Jordan broke records, with doctors performing 15 surgeries in a week.
Gift of Life brings children to Riley Hospital for Children for heart surgeries, but the program also enables doctors to travel to countries lacking the specialists necessary to treat heart defects. The teams perform as many procedures as possible while they’re there and teach local physicians how to perform them as well.
Gift of Life doctors have made four trips this year, treating Syrian refugees and other displaced families in Jordan with the help of a more than $238,000 grant from Rotary International, supported in part by the Greenfield club’s annual Gift of Life Auction. Another trip is planned for November.