Big Surgeries Save Tiny Lives: Children’s Open Heart Surgeries

Diving Deepersummer blog series written by Jodi Grahl

Image of Leonela: 9 month old open heart surgery patient

One of Solidarity Bridge’s programs is the Heart Surgery Program, which includes the dual focuses of pacemaker implants and open heart surgeries. The open heart surgeries are primarily corrective surgeries for infants and children with congenital heart defects. As I read the story of one of our recent heart patients, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.  Not only will the photos bring a smile to your face, the story highlights the difference just one generous donor can make. At the same time, it demonstrates some of the paradoxes of life in a country as poor as Bolivia.

Leonela was nine months old when her family came to the Santa Cruz, Bolivia office of our local partners, Fundación Puente Solidaridad (PuenteSol). Leonela is the second daughter of Ricardo and María Elby. The family lives in the town of Camirí, located on the shores of the Parapeti River in the remote, subtropical Cordillera province in southern Bolivian. The photo of Leonela with her parents might give the impression that María Elby is a teenager, but she is a 32-year-old doctor, employed at a public hospital in the neighboring province of Cuevo. Ricardo, a farm worker, is currently unemployed and assumes primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of Leonela and her four-year-old sister, Barbara.

When Leonela was only four days old, María Elby noticed rapid breathing and rushed her to the local hospital. A chest x-ray revealed an enlarged heart. She was referred to the nearest pediatric cardiology facilities, located in Santa Cruz, some 200 miles away traveling over rough terrain to the north. In Santa Cruz, pediatric cardiologist Dr. Paula Nomura diagnosed congenital cardiomyopathy, specifically a ventricular septal defect (left-to-right shunt), and began medical treatment to improve Leonela’s quality of life. Her parents spent the following months making the arduous trip back and forth to Santa Cruz to monitor and manage her condition, which was further complicated by asthma. Leonela’s failure to put on sufficient weight, despite abundant nursing, was one of the indications that the attempted course of treatment was insufficient. Leonela would need corrective surgery, which was beyond the family’s means. That is when the family turned to PuenteSol.

13-CS-01 Barrientos Leonelas family date removed focal blurrAs our Bolivian social workers got to know the family, they confirmed that even for an educated and employed parent – a doctor no less – treatment and surgery for something as complex as a congenital heart defect may be out of reach. In this case, treatment was only available at a very distant location. That forced Leonela’s parents to invest large sums just to access it. Once in Santa Cruz, the family was forced to pay big-city prices for everything, drawing on the income of a rural doctor. Roughly two-thirds of María Elby’s salary was spent on meals, transportation, and medical tests and treatment.

Leonela has now received corrective surgery performed by the very capable hands of our Bolivian partner, Dr. Arturo Barrientos, at the Incor Clinic in Santa Cruz. Surgery was a success, and her parents are keeping a close eye on Leonela with newfound hope that she will thrive and develop and soon be running after her big sister in the shadows of the Aguarague mountains that border their town. The family will continue to make occasional trips to Santa Cruz to monitor Leonela’s condition.

Open heart surgeries are the most resource-intensive procedures Solidarity Bridge is able to support, and that is only possible thanks to our very generous donors. Through the Goff Gift Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac and Renee Goff have saved the lives of dozens of children like Leonela. Both Renee and Isaac have joined us on mission, she as translator and he as our biggest Fair Trade partner through Dharma Trading Company. More stories are available about the children saved through this fund on Dharma’s website:

Please DonateYOU can save the lives of children like Leonela and many other Bolivians. Please donate to help support our critical work in Latin America or visit our website to learn more: