Established in October of 2021 as an NGO, Healing Valves Ethiopia is a zero-budget local volunteer organization aspiring to perform 50 lifesaving open heart surgeries (OHS) annually for destitute patients suffering from RHD. The organization conducted a sentimental and eye-opening ceremony in celebration of its first anniversary on July 17, 2022.
Rheumatic heart disease (RHD), while almost eradicated in the developed nations, is the principal cause of acquired heart disease in impoverished and marginal settings, affecting 36 million people worldwide and causing an approximately 345,000 death each year. The diseases is caused by repeated Acute Rheumatic Fever (ARF) attacks resulting from recurrent tonsillitis during childhood. Overcrowding of households, unsanitary environment, and low health care coverage turn this preventable and treatable issue into a dangerous one with little hope of recovery.
Dr. Zekaryas Belete, a general surgery resident at Black Lion Hospital (BLH) and Vice Chairman of HVE, brought attention to several facts during his speech at the ceremony. 34.5% of patients with RHD in Africa perish after 180 days of being hospitalized, of which the burden is felt greatest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia, in particular, faces a 12.5% RHD annual mortality rate in rural regions of which an alarming 70% are below the age of 26. In fact, the most common onset of RHD is in kids aged 5-15 who carry it on into adulthood, causing the death of many children and young adults, and proving fatal during pregnancies.
HVE’s struggle is not limited to a year long fight. Months before that, the organization, under the name Mending Hearts Ethiopia, worked to raise awareness and increase prevention of RHD in the society. While that itself is commendable for saving lives before they were ever in danger, the 7,000 RHD patients registered at BLH alone weighed heavy on the members’ minds, especially on adult and pediatric cardiac surgeon (one of the few Ethiopia has) Dr. Fekede Agwar, Founder and Board Chairman of HVE. During the ceremony, he emphasized that a single damaged heart valve surgery costs nearly Br.500,000, a dozen of medical professionals, and can last up to 6 to 12 hours in a day. “Almost all patients seen with end-stage RHD are given appointments for some miracle to work for them one day. When that miracle comes and the patients are called upon to get the surgery…most of them are already gone,” he said.
With that in mind, Dr. Fekede set out with his team to do 50 surgeries a year, and achieved 8 out of that: a number below the target, but a victory nonetheless. Two of the surgeries were made possible by raising funds through HVE’s sister company in USA, but all the operations were conducted by a fully local team, all volunteers. The program prioritized underage chronic RHD patients in severe financial stress. The doctor called attention to the various challenges HVE faced throughout the year, ranging from patients who died waiting for support, multiple damaged valves, and rare forms of RHD, to follow-up costs, inflation, and fear of team exhaustion. “The worst of them all is that you can’t save everyone,” Dr. Fekede said, recalling tearfully that one of the patients operated on could not survive past a week. One thing is for certain though: they may have lost a battle, but they are winning the war.
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