Surgery Team’s 15-year Effort to Heal Children’s Hearts

2月 22, 2019

Surgery Team’s 15-year Effort to Heal Children’s Hearts

Fulfilling its community responsibilities has been a guiding principle from Bumrungrad Hospital’s early beginnings. After all, the Thai word bumrungrad means ‘caring for the community’.

That principle is embodied through the efforts of Bumrungrad physicians, medical staff and company employees, who donate their personal time and resources to support a wide range of community service initiatives and charitable projects — including Rak Jai Thai (Healing Hearts), a charity program that provides free heart surgeries to underprivileged Thai children and young adults born with congenital heart disease.

Dr. Preecha Laohakunakorn has been donating his days off since Rak Jai Thai’s inception 15 years ago. Healthpoint recently sat down with the pediatric cardiologist to discuss the program and learn about how it began.

How did you first become involved with Rak Jai Thai?

Dr. Preecha: I was one of the doctors who helped start the project about 15 years ago, soon after I was first recruited to join the pediatrics team at Bumrungrad. Back then, there were only a few surgeons in Thailand who were trained in pediatric heart surgery to correct congenital defects. The medical schools and government hospitals in the Thai healthcare system had to share surgical facilities with adult patients and other specialists, so they could only do children’s surgeries, at most, one day a week.
There were thousands of Thai children on the waiting list in need of heart surgeries. With certain congenital conditions, if you wait too long to operate, the condition can become irreversible, and for many children that means a shorter lifespan. So I took the idea to one of our hospital directors, Dr. Sinn, and to the head of our pediatrics department, Dr. Oradee. They both got behind the idea and quickly took charge of obtaining the executive approvals needed to start the project as soon as possible.

What gave you the confidence that the program would get off the ground successfully?

Dr. Preecha: There were great surgeons here, we had a terrific nursing team, all the facilities — basically everything we needed was already here. I was sure we could do this.

How do you identify the children who need surgeries?

Dr. Preecha: We and our colleagues from the Bumrungrad Hospital Foundation teamed up with the Cardiac Children Foundation (CCF), which was under the patronage of Her Royal Highness, the late Princess Galyani.
The CCF keeps track of Thai children born with congenital heart defects across Thailand. We just started on the list and invited patients and their families in and did the surgeries for free.

Did you have help from your colleagues?

Dr. Preecha: I call it the “diehard” team. It was myself, one other surgeon and an anesthesiologist. The hardest part at the beginning was sorting out our schedules so that we all had the same day off to do the surgeries. The three of us have been the surgical team from the very beginning until now.
We have nurses who help with every step of the process, from taking care of the patients in preparation for the surgery, and in the CCU (Cardiac Care Unit) after surgery. The nurses do a wonderful job, and there are a lot of people who help out.

Is the hospital’s management supportive of the program?

Dr. Preecha: The hospital gives us a free hand — whenever we want to do a surgery, whichever day, whatever time, they make sure we have the facilities and anything else we need. Some months we do as many as seven free surgeries, and the hospital always gives its full support.   

What is the experience like for the children, especially school-age children? Are they afraid before the surgery?

Dr. Preecha: Definitely, for the older kids, they are anxious about the surgery and worry about it being painful. But after the surgery, they feel good. They can already feel the difference right after the operation.

How does it feel after you finish a surgery and get to tell the parents that their child is going to be okay?

Dr. Preecha: It feels good, exceptionally good! Not only because we’re able to help the child, but because it means a lot to the whole family. When a child is born with a congenital heart problem, the child isn’t the only one whose quality of life suffers. The entire family bears the burden. It affects the lives of other siblings as well; they have to give up a lot because so much of the family’s income must be spent on the child’s medical expenses.

It’s very satisfying to see how relieved the parents feel after the surgery. They have been struggling for so many months or years trying to get help for their child, and finally they have a moment worth celebrating.

Back when Rak Jai Thai was just beginning, did you imagine you would still be so actively involved with the program 15 years later?

Dr. Preecha: I definitely expected to still be doing it. The three of us, we all felt the same. We are going to keep doing this until we retire. And then, we will make sure we recruit a new team to take over from us to keep the surgeries going.
Editor’s note: Donations from the public are greatly appreciated. Details on how to make a donation can be found here. You can further support the hospital’s charity by purchasing products at Lahn Nam Jai, a shop operated by the Bumrungrad Hospital Foundation on the mezzanine (M) floor of the BI Hospital Building, Lahn Nam Jai features quality products made by local Thai communities, hospital souvenirs, green products, and more. The shop is open daily from 8.00 to 17.00 hrs.  

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