Ten years ago, Julian Metts, MD, traveled to Guyana in South America for a dental mission trip. While he was there, he met a girl who had drunk a corrosive substance called lye and had become quite sick due to lack of care. Dr. Metts was so moved by her situation that he ended up returning to Guyana so he could bring the girl back to Richmond for treatment. While International Hospital for Children (IHC) didn’t officially open until 2001, in many ways, this young girl was its first case.
A nonprofit humanitarian organization, IHC links worldwide pediatric surgical, diagnostic, and preventative resources to heal critically ill children in developing countries. IHC also helps build indigenous health care capacity. The hope is that by saving lives they will be transforming pediatric health outcomes for years to come.
According to Jennifer Curtis, director of communications for IHC, “Ninety percent of the world has access to only ten percent of the world’s medical resources.” In an effort to even out this disparity, this organization is dedicated to ending the needless suffering of these critically ill children. Current program countries include Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana, and Dominican Republic, as well as the small island nations of Eastern Caribbean.
Their goal is to assist in countries where basic health care exists, but children are living in pain or dying young. Sometimes that assistance comes in the form of a team of surgeons, nurses, and an anesthesiologist traveling to a program country, but other times it involves transporting a child to Richmond for care.
Donna Brown, MD, is one of IHC’s volunteer eye surgeons as well as the current chairperson of their board of directors. She has been involved with IHC since 2003 and finds the most rewarding aspect is her direct contact with the children. In October, there was a 4-year-old boy in Richmond who had undergone cataract surgery on both eyes. Dr. Brown explained, “He had very limited vision prior to surgery and now is thrilled by all of the things he can see in this world. It is extremely moving to see his reactions.”
While Dr. Brown has helped numerous children through IHC, her most memorable moment involved a Christmas Day visit to the Ronald McDonald House. Her partner, George Sanborn, MD, had performed surgery for a retinoblastoma, a malignancy of the eye, the day before. The patient, a child from the Caribbean country of St. Vincent, was the first that Dr. Brown had brought to Richmond through IHC. “To know that this child’s life was saved because this organization is here was the motivation for me to become involved with IHC. This child is now in primary school in St. Vincent and I am able to see him each year when I go to St. Vincent to work. He is alive and well thanks to IHC,” Dr. Brown said.
David Lanning, MD, is a pediatric surgeon who works at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at the VCU Medical Center and has been volunteering for the IHC for the last six years. He typically makes a trip to St. Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean every January, but this fall he made his first trip to Belize due to the tremendous need. “There are no true pediatric surgeons there. A lot of these kids will die because they are being operated on by someone who doesn’t know what to do,” Dr. Lanning said. Over the course of four days in Belize, he performed twenty surgeries.
His most memorable moment from this trip, however, was reuniting with a child on whom he had operated in Richmond over a year ago. Baby Joshua Teck had been born with an incomplete esophagus, which meant it was impossible to feed him. Only four pounds at one month, Joshua’s prognosis wasn’t good. He had developed pneumonia as well as severe respiratory failure due to feeding attempts. His family was from a small village in Belize, which meant they couldn’t afford the life-saving surgery. Had the little boy been born in Richmond, Dr. Lanning could have performed this surgery with relative ease, but IHC had to deny baby Joshua transport to Virginia, fearing the child wouldn’t survive the trip. However, when IHC’s recommended course of treatment improved his vitals, they made arrangements to bring Joshua, his mother, and his physician to Richmond.
Dr. Lanning explained, “When I met Joshua, the IV was his life line. He was a day away from dying, if not hours.” It would take three more weeks of IV treatments before Dr. Lanning could repair his esophagus, but ultimately, the operation was a success.
During Dr. Lanning’s recent visit to Belize, he saw Joshua, now a year and a half old. “His mom had come from hours away just so I could see her child, who is now chunky. It is really incredible. We don’t know if these kids will live, much less thrive, and to see them doing great is amazing.” As a father of two young children, this reunion proved particularly meaningful to Dr. Lanning.
Since 2001, IHC has reached over 9,000 children with advanced pediatric diagnostic and surgical services. What makes IHC even more special is the fact that they are not only healing children today, but helping to create sustainable solutions for tomorrow by instructing doctors in the program countries.
At present, IHC has enough doctors who want to do this important work. The problem the organization faces, however, is getting enough financial support to send teams abroad and bring children back to the United States for treatment. Dr. Brown explained, “There are so many exciting opportunities in our partner countries for new and expanding programs but we need lots of dollars to do this.”
As Dr. Brown, a Richmond mom with two daughters now in college, reminds us: International Hospital for Children doesn’t believe that geography should be the reason a child lives or dies.