Surgery that can make you dance with happiness

An initiative by Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital to provide costly heart surgery to 100 people for free has now concluded. Now the hospital plans to offer free surgery to 1,000 recipients.

Kusuma after corrective surgery to repair a congenital heart defect, with her parents. Courtesy Burjeel Hospital
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ABU DHABI // Four-year-old Kusuma beams as she dances around her older sisters in her red and yellow dress. Constantly active and on the move, she is now like any other girl her own age after corrective surgery to repair a congenital heart defect.

She is just one of 100 beneficiaries of an initiative by Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi’s largest private hospital, to provide free heart surgery to those in the Middle East who cannot afford treatment.

The 100th person has now been successfully operated on so the Dh12 million initiative – set up in memory of the founding Father, Sheikh Zayed – has finished.

However, it was such a success that hospital chiefs now want to conduct 10 times as many operations as a pledge to the President, Sheikh Khalifa, who has been active in the humanitarian field for decades.

“Our next plan is to do 1,000 free heart operations in the next five years,” said Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, the hospital’s founder and managing director.

“We have been so fortunate in this part of the world with the leaders being so generous. Sometimes you need to give back to the community.”

For Kusuma’s mother, Varalakshmi Venkatesh, the humanitarian initiative has given her youngest child a new lease of life.

It was not until a health check when she was four that doctors discovered Kusuma had a hole in her heart.

It came as a devastating shock to Ms Venkatesh.

“As a girl she was active and there were no worries,” said the mother-of-three, from Bangalore, in India.

The family of five relies on the income of Kusuma’s father, a carpenter who is hearing-impaired and mute, and Ms Venkatesh’s earnings as a domestic helper. So they were unable to afford costly heart surgery.

“I was worried about my little girl. But after the surgery she is fine. We are very happy,” she said.

A ceremony a few weeks ago, marking the end of the initiative, saw the beneficiaries and their families come together.

“It was gratifying,” said Dr Vayalil. “It was one of those moments in life that cannot be quantified. A lot were in tears.”

Beneficiaries ranged from a two-day-old baby to a grandfather in his 70s.

Among them was a 23-year-old blind Bangladeshi. As he came from a family of seven who rely on a single income, there was no money to pay for the open heart surgery he needed.

Another was Yasmin, a three-year-old girl from Bangladesh. Medical staff at Burjeel recall her father crying tears of joy after her successful operation, citing his daughter as his sole purpose for living.

Another was an Emirati whose heart problems were only discovered after she gave birth, said Professor Uwe Klima, consultant of cardiothoracic surgery.

Within a week of an operation to repair a defect in the ventricular septum, the wall dividing the left and right ventricles of the heart, she was back on her feet and able to breastfeed her child.

“This baby now has a mother who is going to be healthy,” he said. “If we did not do the surgery she would not have a mother.”

Applicants for the initiative, first launched in November 2012, were chosen for their eligibility to receive the cardiac surgery.

The hospital covered the cost of surgery, medical assistance and post-surgical care.

Prof Klima said giving those in need access to life-changing heart operations has far-reaching consequences.

“If you are able to save a life of a child who is one-year-old then you give that child a whole life,” he said.

“Or you save a father who has acute infection of the heart valve and cannot work to feed his family anymore. You save this patient and then he feeds the family for another 30 years.

“Even someone who is 70 to 80 years in age and you get him another 10 years of good quality life – then the grandchildren can spend this time with their grandfather.”