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Hearts Afire

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Winter 1998
Hearts Afire
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Through it all, for five long days, often starting before 8 in the morning and sometimes lasting past midnight, the team performed surgery on infants and teenagers, selected from among 75 candidates presented by the hospital. All suffered various forms of cyanotic heart disease, congenital defects that restrict the flow of blood from the heart to the lungs. Existence for them is a misery. Such children often are bedridden, unable to walk or play without quickly becoming exhausted; their lips and fingernails take on a bluish hue, like the baby in the E.R. Without treatment, they are doomed to a slow, inexorable death.

In all, the UCLA team performed 12 intricate operations to close holes between chambers of the children's hearts, replace defective valves, refashion malformed vessels and to shunt the flow of blood directly to the lungs, bypassing abnormal areas of the heart. In between, they performed more than a dozen diagnostic procedures and less invasive interventions such as cardiac catheterizations in which thin tubes are snaked through vessels into the heart to make less complicated repairs without surgery.

As they work in the O.R., the efficiency and relative calm of surgery contrasts sharply with the tumult on the streets below and within the jammed, noisy corridors of the hospital, where parents and children arrive early in the morning, jostling for a place in line for clinics or the pharmacy. In the small waiting area outside the operating rooms, an Andean woman in a brimmed hat sits on a bench nursing a baby under her shawl. Anxious parents line the stairway, pace the cracked linoleum floor and crowd around the locked door to the surgery, pressing their faces against the mirrored glass in the hope of catching a glimpse of their child or a nurse who can deliver some news.

Anxiety among parents of sick children is universal but, in this setting, their desperation somehow feels more urgent. Perhaps it is because for many, the visit of these medicos Americanos is their last hope.

"They don't have the resources here to fight for every life," says Alejos. "They have to say 'no' to the most difficult cases."

So it is not unusual for a mother, hope and desperation mixed in her eyes, to approach an American-looking stranger and press into his hand photographs and notes pleading for succor on behalf of her son and daughter -- Mi niño es muy enfermo. Necessita ayuda, por favor!

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