Pitching in to Help Haitian Children with Hydrocephalus
Last December, a 12-member neurosurgical team extended their practice beyond the walls of the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and UTHealth Medical School to Haiti, where they spent five days on a medical mission to treat children with hydrocephalus.
During their mission trip, the pediatric neurosurgery team performed procedures on 25 patients who otherwise likely wouldn't have received surgical treatment.
“We left Houston in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning, arrived in Port-au-Prince that afternoon and went straight to the clinic where families were waiting outside in rows of folded chairs set up in a shaded area,” says Jamie Wright, a fourth-year M.D./Ph.D. student at UTHealth Medical School.
“After evaluation by neurosurgery and anesthesia, 25 patients were scheduled for surgery. We oriented ourselves very quickly and were in two ORs by 8 a.m. the following morning, ready to operate.”
The Houston team was met at the Port-au-Prince airport by a representative of Project Medishare, a Miami-based organization dedicated to providing comprehensive health and development services in Haiti.
Project Medishare mobilized the first medical team on the ground in Haiti just 12 hours after the devastating 2010 earthquake and, through medical volunteers, treats more than 180,000 people annually.
The contributions of physicians and staff members affiliated with Mischer Neuroscience Institute and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital were generously supported by a gift to the Memorial Hermann Foundation from Miami resident Dick Bassett, who joined the team in Haiti.
In addition to Jamie Wright, the team – seven physicians and four operating staff members – included David I. Sandberg, M.D., FAANS, FACS, FAAP, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Mischer Neuroscience Institute and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and an associate professor in the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery and the department of Pediatric Surgery at UTHealth Medical School; Manish Shah, M.D., clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery; Maria Matuszczak, M.D., professor and director of pediatric anesthesia at UTHealth Medical School; Allison Keyser, M.D., clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology; neurosurgery residents Sebastian Villarreal, M.D., and Sean Meiner, M.D.; anesthesiology resident Ashley Upton, M.D.; OR nurses Linda Mobley, RN, Dorothy Serralles, RN; and surgical technologists Katrina Meshell, RN, and Angelita Maclao, CST.
Neurosurgeons, residents and nurses from Memorial Hermann and UTHealth worked closely to treat the pediatric patients with hydrocephalus.
Because Haiti lacks a dedicated pediatric neurosurgeon, children with hydrocephalus – a highly treatable condition – remain untreated to the point of debilitation or death. “I was surprised to see the number of patients who had come from all over the country to see Dr. Sandberg,” Linda Mobley says.
“We don’t see cases like this in the United States because we treat the disorder much earlier. The desperate condition of the patients, the gratitude of their parents and the babies’ smiles made the trip worthwhile on so many levels. You learn very quickly on mission trips that you can’t practice medicine like we do in the United States. Resources are limited, and you have to pitch in and do whatever needs to be done.”
Dr. Sandberg, who has participated in many medical missions, was most impressed by the teamwork of the group. “It was a remarkable collaboration,” he says. “We couldn’t have asked for a better team. We worked together to prepare for the trip and brought in all our own surgical supplies and equipment. To do eight surgeries in a day, you have to be incredibly efficient. Everyone involved pitched in and did whatever needed to be done to help these kids. It was a very rewarding experience.”
Dr. Matuszczak has served on other medical missions and says they are always challenging. “You never know exactly what to expect, especially when you travel to a country you’ve never visited before,” she says. “We managed difficult cases we generally don’t see in the western world, and yet our team worked together as if we do this every day. For me, it’s always about making sure the anesthesia is as safe as we provide at home, even though we’re working in an environment that’s not as safe as a hospital in the United States. Making all the right decisions for these critically ill children took incredible teamwork from all sides.”
Wright, who has hydrocephalus and coordinates the Hydrocephalus Association’s Houston Community Network, says it’s an experience she’ll never forget. “It was a powerful and humbling mixture of emotions,” she says.
“There was the joy of seeing how happy and grateful the parents were, and the kids, who have gone through so much but are still happy and smiling. Having been through the surgeries myself, I’m very grateful for the medical care we have here. If I had been born just a couple of hours away by plane, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
The pediatric neurosurgery and pediatric anesthesia teams from Mischer Neuroscience Institute, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and UTHealth Medical School make an annual mission trip to Haiti during the holiday season in conjunction with Project Medishare.