Coming Together to Save Lives; All Heart Surgeries Successful

Home After Surgery: Happy to be healthy and at home on Christmas Island after heart surgery are (top from left) Teiaia Kauongo, Waiene Iwi, Teurakai Tooti, and Tebikau Kamatua, and (bottom from left) Mary Olivia Itaaka and Jason Kaburenga.

Home After Surgery: Happy to be healthy and at home on Christmas Island after heart surgery are (top from left) Teiaia Kauongo, Waiene Iwi, Teurakai Tooti, and Tebikau Kamatua, and (bottom from left) Mary Olivia Itaaka and Jason Kaburenga.

Where do you start to tell the heartwarming true story of a group of skilled, talented and generous Americans who come together as a team to save the lives of some seriously ill young patients from an isolated island in the central Pacific.

The story begins earlier this year when PIMA’s heart team, headed by Dr. Alistair Fyfe, of Cardiac Associates of Dallas, traveled to Christmas Island, Kiribati, with two cardiac nurses from Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, and his echo technician Beaux Seabury and, with portable diagnostic equipment, saw more than 500 islanders in just one week.

It was an exhausting undertaking for them, but out of it they diagnosed many adolescents with treatable heart disease, probably caused by Rheumatic fever, and discovered five young patients who needed life-saving heart surgery…. unavailable anywhere in their small island nation.

None would live long without surgery.

There was 11-year-old Jason Kaburenga with a big hole in his heart; Mary Olivia Itaaka, 18, with a hole in her heart; Teiaia Kauongo, 28, who needed two new heart valves; Tebikau Kamatua, 33, needing to have a hole in his heart repaired; Teurakai Tooti, 19, who needed two new heart valves and a hole in his heart repaired; and Waiena Iwi, 35, needing a new heart valve.

Some could barely walk.

The task to get the help they needed seemed daunting… transportation, U.S. visas, cardiologists and hospitals willing to help, lodging and meals ..

With proper documentation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was kind enough to grant visa waivers to permit them to come to Texas for life-saving surgery.

One generous humanitarian, attorney Gary St. Peter, offered to pay a big portion of the air fares to bring the patients and the Kiribati doctor and nurse from Christmas Island to Honolulu and onward to Dallas and back.

PIMA supporter Ms. Carole Eades kindly loaned us her home in Kailau to use while we were coming and going through Honolulu.

Then there were the cardiologists, anesthesiologists, nurses and other medical support staff members who came forward to help from the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, under the direction of their fantastic president, Mark A. Valentine. Doctors there, including David O. Moore, M.D.; James Edgerton, MD; William Brinkman, M.D.; William H. Ryan, M.D.; and Robert L. Smith, M.D. all offered to perform the surgeries, along with their supporting anesthesiologists and nurses.

And for 11-year-old Jason Kaburenga, who had a big hole in his heart, Dr. Eric N. Mendeloff, M.D., director of the Congenital Heart Surgery Center at Medical City Hospital in Dallas, volunteered to do the surgery, along with the help of Dr. Henry Kort, pediatric cardiologist, and their team.

Mending Kids, International, a wonderful organization based in Burbank, California, helped a great deal by covering some of the cost of Jason’s surgery. Others pulled together, too, to see that Jason’s surgery was done.

Sherry Shaw, regional director of On-X Life Technologies, Inc., arranged for her company to donate the heart valves, some of the most technologically advanced heart valves in the world.

It was a remarkable coming together of good-hearted individuals who want to help make a difference in this world.

And thanks to the Homewood Suites in Plano for great rates and the dozens of PIMA volunteers who shuttled patients back and forth including Ron and Suzanne MacDougle, Joe Cuthbertson, Cora Smith, bus driver Larry Rex and the van provided by United Methodist Men, Edom, Texas.

You are great!

All surgeries were a complete success. And after six weeks in the U.S., Christmas Islanders are all now safely back home and can expect to have full, normal lives.