FEATURED: Team Heart surgeons continue saving hundreds of lives in Rwanda

Some of the Team Heart volunteers and KFH health care professionals

Health experts in non-communicable diseases are concerned about preventable and treatable conditions like rheumatic heart disease, which are resulting in more deaths. There is a need for specialized cardiac services because rheumatic heart disease is on the rise.

Rheumatic heart disease is damaged heart valves caused by rheumatic fever as a result of a sore throat left untreated during childhood and thus requires open heart surgery to repair and/or replace the affected valves.

RSSB through its Community Based Health Insurance (CBHI) commonly known as ‘Mutuelle de Sante’ is working with Team Heart, an international non-governmental organization, to provide cardiac care heart surgery to Rwandans.

The 2019 patients that were operated on

According to Jessica Sewase, the Acting Country Director of Team Heart, their main mission is to provide diagnosis and cardiac surgical care to vulnerable Rwandans who cannot afford treatment abroad. For the past 12 years, Team Heart has performed over 180 open-heart surgeries on Rwandans suffering from rheumatic heart disease.

A group of over 34, including cardiac surgeons, anesthesiologists, pharmacists, nurses and perfusionists in collaboration with Oshen- King Faisal Hospital (KFH) performed surgery on patients suffering from the effects of rheumatic heart disease. “We have a team of over 34 specialists that come once a year to provide cardiac surgery to patients. We work with the Ministry of Health and Rwandan cardiologists to carry out the surgical mission and provide post-cardiac management with local Rwandan partners. So from the 4th to the 11th of February our team carried out 16 surgeries on vulnerable patients,” explained Sewase.

The 2019 cohort with Team Heart Co-Founders

‘‘It is very expensive to send patients abroad. Thus, transferring skills and building capacity of local doctors is a priority,” Sewase added. With most of the patients in Ubudehe 1, 2 and 3, Team Heart collaborates with the Ministry of Health, RSSB, and Oshen-KFH to cover the cost of surgery.

“In 2016, Team Heart had a full -time country presence to better coordinate our activities and ensure proper follow up of our patients after the surgical team departs.  Despite performing over 180 open-heart surgeries over the past 12 years, there is still a need for sustainable cardiac care services in Rwanda including infrastructure, capacity building, increased access to care and increased public awareness of the condition,” said Sewase.

A 2018 patient Uwamahoro Ange Naome after her surgery

According to Muziganye Florence, Mutuelle Coordinator at RSSB, it was a blessing to have got professional specialists like Team Heart to offer treatment to vulnerable patients under Mutuelle. “If it wasn’t for Team Heart, it would have required such patients to be sent abroad which would be extremely expensive for us. Through the Ministry of Health we came up with a working arrangement with Team Heart to offer these expensive surgeries,” says Muziganye. 

She added that many patients with Mutuelle de Sante and others with RAMA have managed to undergo surgery through Team Heart intervention like the one that has just concluded recently. “When you consider the equipment that they fly in for the operations and the number of specialists that come from the US, it is enough to say that we are blessed to be paying so little for such expensive surgeries and we really appreciate their input,” she added. 

The goal for Team Heart is to develop facilities and skills so partners work together to eradicate rheumatic heart disease and treat other well-known types of heart disease now found in Rwanda. As the number one killer in the world, heart disease prevention and treatment are important to the economy and people of Rwanda.