16 Surgeries in Eight Days: Bruce Leavitt, M.D., Travels to Rwanda with Team Heart
- By Erin E Post
In the photos, young men and women clutch heart-shaped pillows and beam at the camera. All recovering from heart surgery, they have a longer life to look forward to thanks to the work of Bruce Leavitt, M.D., professor of surgery at the UVM College of Medicine, and a team of cardiac surgeons who recently visited Rwanda.
While access to antibiotics has nearly eradicated rheumatic heart disease in the United States, this preventable, but all too common diagnosis remains a serious problem in developing countries. Caused by untreated strep infections that over time injure the heart valves, it disproportionately affects children and young adults, according to the World Heart Federation. Early symptoms often go undetected, so by the time a patient appears sick, the heart has been damaged to the point where surgery is required. In countries with limited medical resources, this surgery is often not possible.
Enter Team Heart. Based out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, this group is comprised entirely of volunteers from medicine, nursing, perfusion, respiratory therapy and a range of other positions. Since 2007, they have partnered with the Rwanda Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Heart Foundation to perform the surgeries as well as train medical professionals to identify the disease early, and intervene before surgery is necessary.
Team Heart’s volunteer surgeons performed 16 heart operations in eight days at King Faisil Hospital in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to treat patients with rheumatic heart disease, which affects millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the Team Heart blog, Leavitt talks about his first patient, a 19-year-old man whose “case was difficult because of the greatly enlarged size of his heart.” He received a “mechanical mitral valve and a tricuspid valve repair with a ring.”
“After today we will have finished 4 cases with 12 to go,” Leavitt says in his post. “More to come.”
Ultimately, Team Heart’s goal is to “help build a sustainable comprehensive program in cardiac surgery in Rwanda to address this significant burden of disease.” Nearly 100 patients have been treated by Team Heart over the years. They also screen school-age children and provide follow-up care – including Coumadin, a critical pharmaceutical – for those who receive mechanical valves.
Leavitt received his M.D. from the UVM College of Medicine in 1981. After completing residencies in general surgery at Maine Medical Center and in cardiopulmonary surgery at SUNY Health Sciences Center in Syracuse, N.Y., he returned to UVM in 1988 as an assistant professor of surgery and was appointed professor of surgery in 2003. Leavitt is no stranger to international volunteer work: In 2010, he went on a Doctors Without Borders mission to Nigeria and in June-July 2009, served with Doctors Without Borders at the Manik Farm Hospital in Sri Lanka. Leavitt has volunteered on other medical aid missions as well, including a 2004 trip to Panama, a 1995 trip to Yaroslavl, Russia, and a 1992 trip to Yinchan, China.
In his blog post for Team Heart, Leavitt highlights the collaborative nature of the work and the energy the team members bring to the hospital.
“I am truly amazed at the teamwork, dedication, knowledge and skill of everyone on Team Heart,” he says. “I guess I now know why ‘Team’ is the leading word for our organization.”
Read more about Team Heart.