As The Pacific Advocate recently reported, a new children’s hospital has opened, providing free heart surgery to children across the Pacific. Shalveen Chand has spoken to the doctors and nurses that are doing such amazing work in this beautiful and touching special feature.
At just seven weeks old, little Kitione was the youngest of the 30 children who underwent lifesaving surgery at the Sai Sanjeevani Children’s Hospital in Suva in the last two weeks.
The hospital is the first of its kind in the Pacific where children with congenital heart disease are given cardiac surgery at no cost.
Some of the surgeries would have cost around a million dollars, and for some parents this would have meant watching their children lose out on life because they cannot afford these surgeries.
This was the motive behind the hospital – A lovechild of the charity organisation Sai Prema Foundation Fiji – when it opened its doors on April 27, 2022.
Each year close to 2,500 children are born with congenital heart disease in the Pacific and a vast majority end up losing their lives because there are no facilities in the region offering such medical care.
In most cases, Pacific parents are not able to afford surgeries overseas.
Dr Monika Gupta and Deborah Pegg. Picture: supplied
Now with the first lot of surgeries done for the children in Fiji, the hospital could see referrals from other Pacific nations as well.
Little Kitione is one such child whose life was literally at the mercy of the visiting medical experts. He may never remember the procedure he has undergone but his parents will forever remain grateful to the surgeons and the medical team.
Had the timing been a little off, the infant would have been another casualty. All 30 children that have walked out of the hospital this week were in a similar situation.
‘God saves lives, we intervene’
Dr Monika Gupta worked throughout the two weeks she was in Fiji. She was the only one with her expertise, the doctor in charge of the paediatric intensive care unit.
Dr Gupta and hear team of overseas and local Fijian medical staff look after the recovery of children post surgery.
She is based in the United States where she consults at the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia and Nemores Hospital in Florida.
This was her first trip to Fiji and she was happy that she could be part of something special. When she was offered a trip on this medical mission, she did not hesitate.
“I don’t know if I would call myself as a savior of lives. I think God saves lives, we try to intervene and do the best that we can,” she said.
“It is a humbling experience and it teaches us in life how lucky we are to have healthy children and that everyone around is in good health.
“We want to help these families who are going through so much pain, the fear of anxiety and loss. We want to support them and help heal these children.
“The beauty about a child is that they are so resilient. The moment that they get an opportunity, they will get up and thrive. That is what we feed on. They have endless energy.”
For Dr Gupta, the Sanjeevani Children’s Hospital provides everything children and parents need.
She said the people behind the hospital had put a lot of love into it and the result was that lives of children were being saved.
“It is a beautiful hospital, they have made with their heart. And the most important thing is that the surgeries are being done free,” said Dr Gupta.
“The same surgery in the United States costs around a million dollars. And the same treatment is being given to these children at no cost.”
She said most times the cost of surgery is not the only cost parents bear.
She said there were associated costs but the hospital ensures that parents do not need to worry about this either.
Dr Gupta is confident that this service can be extended to children of other Pacific nations.
“This is our goal that Pacific children are able to get the best medical care. I would love to come back and be part of that,” she said.
The ICU nurse
Queensland nurse Deborah Pegg is no stranger to Fiji; this was her third trip on a medical mission. The previous two had been at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital.
She is a pediatric intensive care nurse and a nurse educator.
“I think it is fantastic not to have a billing counter. This is just a beautiful facility, well thought of and the families are catered for. It is just amazing,” she said.
“It’s beautiful. The families are all so lovely. The children are just so lovely.
“For little Kitione, if the visiting team had not turned up, he would not have been able to have that surgery and that would have had a serious effect on his life span.
“A lot of children are saved by having this facility. And a lot of children would die needlessly because the cardiac service offered here are not usually available.
“These children had limited opportunities to go overseas and have that surgery because it costs a lot of money to do that surgeries.”
Ms Pegg is sure that the future for many Fijian and Pacific children has become brighter and a lot of children are going to be able to have lifesaving surgeries.
Looking after children for two weeks is always an experience that leaves her attached.
“They all have had an effect on me especially Kitione. He came back to me post surgery and it was quite hard at first with the tubes and wires but soon we were seeing it through together,” she said.
“He is just seven weeks old and he had a condition where the veins were pumping the blood into the wrong chambers of the heart.
“The surgeons operated and reroute the veins. He would not have survived if the team had not arrived when it did.
“It was uplifting to see him lose all the wiring and the tubes he had. All of the kids were beautiful.
“It is very satisfying to know that parents are taking back children who will have longer lives.”