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Hearts Afire

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Winter 1998
Hearts Afire
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In this country of 25 million people, the Instituto de Salud del Niño is the sole specialized children's hospital. For the poorest of this very poor country -- nearly half of all children suffer from chronic malnutrition, almost two-thirds of the population must rely on the government for even minimal health-care services and the rate of infant mortality is the second highest in Latin America -- it may be the only medical center that offers even remote hope for gravely ill children. Worse, for many families, just getting to the front door can be a deadly journey over treacherous roads that snake along the face of sheer cliffs from villages high in the Andes or deep within the Amazon Basin. In one week in September, 54 people were killed and 35 injured when overcrowded, broken-down trucks and buses skidded off crumbling mountain roads.

And the end of the road doesn't guarantee success. Even in this large hospital, the right medicine, in this case the drug prostaglandin, simply isn't available. And if it were, the high cost -- several hundred dollars for a single vial -- puts it out of reach of all but the wealthiest families.

"The expense would not be a consideration in an emergency in the States," says Dr. Josephine B. Isabel-Jones, a cardiologist and assistant dean of student affairs in UCLA's School of Medicine. "Prostaglandin is readily available; we would administer the drug, save the baby's life and worry later about how to pay for it. But in this instance, we simply didn't have it."

And so, the baby died.

"It was so hard, so frustrating for us," says Alejos, "to see this little baby die because of the lack of resources."

That is why Alejos, a UCLA pediatric cardiologist with a ready smile and easy manner, has for four years traveled to Peru, organizing and assembling volunteer medical teams to bring with him. These trips are something of a personal mission for Alejos, a way to honor the memory of his Peruvian father, a pediatrician, by giving something back to the country of his forbearers. The goal, Alejos says, goes beyond healing sick children. The real aim is to work side-by-side with the South American doctors and nurses in order to train them in techniques that are routine in this country but rare in Peru for correcting complex congenital heart defects.

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