Keeping Hearts Beating
With no-cost surgeries, Austin’s HeartGift is saving lives
by Robyn Ross
Photographs by Jama Patel
Born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, tiny Yujia was abandoned as an infant on the street of her small Chinese village. A local couple adopted her and was able to get her cleft lip fixed, but in the process, doctors discovered she also had a potentially fatal congenital heart defect. The medical team didn’t want to risk another surgery to fix her cleft palate until her heart had been repaired, but her adoptive parents had exhausted their resources.
Then an agency in China connected Yujia’s father with HeartGift, an Austin-based charity that provides free heart surgeries to children who don’t have access to them in their home countries. Yujia traveled to Austin in 2017 with a Chinese volunteer who spoke English, and the two stayed with a host who spoke her dialect. The cardiothoracic surgical team at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas repaired the little girl’s heart, and she stayed in Austin until she was healthy enough to return home. Her family didn’t pay a cent.
“We’re so fortunate in the United States to have access to medical care — not that it’s easy, but if you have a problem, you have resources,” says Austin Realtor Laura Gottesman, who has supported HeartGift as a donor and volunteer since its inception, in 2000. “HeartGift is an amazing organization that shares what we have in our community with others.”
Last year, the nonprofit hit a milestone when it saved the life of its 400th child. That tally includes children whose surgeries were completed in Austin — about 12 each year — as well as those served by chapters in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Louisiana and two medical mission trips to Bolivia.
HeartGift was founded by Austin cardiothoracic surgeon John “Chip” Oswalt and his friend Ray Wilkerson. One of Oswalt’s colleagues had volunteered in a Kosovo refugee camp, where he met six children with congenital heart defects that couldn’t be repaired in-country. The two doctors arranged for the children to fly to Texas, have their life-saving surgeries and return to Kosovo, with all the costs covered by the hospitals and private donors. Oswalt, Wilkerson and other friends went on to establish a nonprofit to help more children whose heart defects might otherwise be a death sentence, simply because of where the kids were born.
An estimated 1 in 100 children worldwide is born with a heart defect. In the areas HeartGift serves — among them Kenya, Uganda, Kosovo, the Philippines and parts of Central America — many children aren’t born in hospitals, where their defect could be diagnosed. Instead, parents notice that their child isn’t growing normally. The child might tire easily or have a persistent cough, and a visit to the regional clinic reveals that the underlying cause is, for example, a hole between two chambers of the heart. Some such clinics are run by aid agencies that refer patients to HeartGift. Other times, families find out about HeartGift through word-of-mouth, or even through internet searches.
HeartGift covers travel expenses for the child and a caregiver and arranges for them to stay with a local host family. “It’s a leap of faith to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world and put your trust in somebody you’ve never met,” says the nonprofit’s CEO, Christy Casey-Moore. The children — most of them four or five years old — stay in the U.S. for roughly a month, which includes time for other medical needs, like dental work, to be addressed before their heart surgery. Each trip costs between $30,000 and $40,000, which includes a flat fee paid to participating hospitals; the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals donate their services.
Afterward, the HeartGift staff keep up with former patients through email or Facebook and reports from doctors on medical mission trips. They marvel at how children who were exhausted by a short walk can now run and play with their peers. Kids who couldn’t make it through a whole school day can now get an education, which means their parents can return to work, providing more for the entire family.
Two years ago HeartGift expanded its reach by underwriting a medical mission team that has for 12 years partnered with a clinic in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. With HeartGift’s financial support and logistical assistance from the Houston chapter and Houston medical team, the group was able to treat 20 children in 10 days.
The success of that trip inspired HeartGift’s leaders to return to Bolivia in 2018 and to plan an expansion in a second international location, perhaps Kenya.
Longtime supporter Gottesman, who speaks Spanish, joined the trip last year to support the children before their procedures, attend some of the surgeries and comfort the parents. After witnessing the families’ courage — and the incredible impact of the trip — Gottesman committed her luxury residential real estate company to covering the lion’s share of the $50,000 bill for a future HeartGift mission. Each of her 21 agents will make a contribution after every closing, and the company will match it.
Donors like Gottesman, the medical professionals who work for free, and the U.S. host families and volunteers keep HeartGift scrappy, says Casey-Moore. “We’re a little nonprofit — in that there’s only 10 of us employed in the entire organization — with a really big global impact,” she says. “What we do is such a significant, life-changing thing for a family, and we don’t have a lot of overhead. We do one thing, and that is, we save children.”