Dr. Eliot Rosenkranz Mending Children’s Hearts in the Caribbean

We see many, many kids who have been delayed in getting care, and the reality is that some of the kids die before we see them. – Eliot Rosenkranz, M.D.

Dr. Eliot Rosenkranz is no stranger to saving children’s hearts. In his 25 years as a congenital heart surgeon, he’s often been called upon to perform life-saving operations on children from underdeveloped countries. Most often, the children would be flown to wherever he was working at the time, whether it was at the Cleveland Clinic, Children’s Hospital of Buffalo or, most recently, Holtz Children’s Hospital, part of the Jackson Health System in Miami.

So Dr. Rosenkranz was very impressed when he learned of Caribbean Heart Menders, a non-profit organization with a very different mission. Instead of flying children to the United States for surgery, Caribbean Heart Menders trains cardiac surgeons and their teams in developing countries to treat the children there.

“Most of the groups I’ve worked with over the years go into another country like they are on a military mission. They operate on as many children as they possibly can and the physicians living in the native countries don’t participate. Our approach at Caribbean Heart Menders is different. Our idea is not to go in and do a zillion cases. We want to help the local physicians, surgeons and nurses take care of their own patients,” says Dr. Rosenkranz.

Caribbean Heart Menders was founded in 1994 to address the needs of children dying from congenital heart disease in the Caribbean who would otherwise lead normal lives with early intervention. Initially, the organization followed the typical blueprint of bringing children to the U.S. for surgery. “We provided surgery for children from countries such as Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago; however, over time this became cost prohibitive and did nothing to solve the ultimate problem of not having a local program to care for the needs of the children within each region,” says Barbara Davis-Sears, the organization’s former president.

This is when the organization decided to refocus on helping local communities build their own cardiac surgical programs. The first medical mission was to Jamaica and has continued almost yearly since 2000.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also in 2000 that Dr. Rosenkranz arrived in Miami from his previous position, director of congenital heart surgery at Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. It was in Miami that Dr. Rosenkranz met Davis-Sears, who is the advanced registered nurse practitioner assigned to the congenital heart disease service, and he became the medical advisor to the Caribbean Heart Menders team.

Over the years, Caribbean Heart Menders has racked up an impressive set of achievements that include saving the lives of more than 380 children from Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago; creating a Nurse Education Training Program to serve as a model for developing countries; assisting in the training of nurse and nurse educators; awarding scholarships in the healthcare field and participating in programs to bring awareness to the problem of congenital heart defects.

For Dr. Rosenkranz, working with the Holtz Children’s Hospital staff volunteers in these countries is rewarding. “There is not a child in the United States who does not have access to good heart care. Some have it easier than others but every child has access. That is not true in the Caribbean basin. Some countries have relatively good heart care, some have nothing and some are in-between.”

For the poorer countries, life is harsh and pediatric cardiac care is sometimes nonexistent. “We see many, many kids who have been delayed in getting care and the reality is that some of the kids die before we see them. Of those who we do see, many of them have suffered from the side effects of congenital heart disease: their development has been delayed, they have physical limitations, and their parents have lived for years with the stress of having a ticking time bomb over their heads.”

Caribbean Heart Menders also works very closely with the International Kids Fund, a non-profit, philanthropic program of the Jackson Memorial Foundation that brings critically ill children, primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean, to Miami for essential medical treatments that are unavailable in their respective home countries. Because some of the children in need of cardiac care come from the same counties that Caribbean Heart Menders works in, Dr. Rosenkranz can help coordinate their care so they receive quicker treatment. “This has developed into a very nice partnership that is quite unique,” he said.

But the biggest achievement of Caribbean Heart Menders is about to be realized. The organization, along with a consortium of other non-governmental organizations and private corporations, is participating in the opening of a brand-new cardiac addition for Bustamante Hospital for Children in Kingston, Jamaica. The addition will serve children up to the age of 12 and will include an operating room, 10 intensive care unit beds, a catheterization laboratory and support facilities.

“They have a cardiac surgeon there who is very capable and a very capable children’s heart anesthesiologist, but their facilities were very, very limited and they couldn’t do surgery frequently enough,” said Dr. Rosenkranz. “This will be a dramatic change from what they had and will allow their entire team to become more capable and confident in caring for the endless number of kids they have to care for,” he added.