Foreign Community Brings Pediatric Surgery To Our State

Supervising at first, but now local doctors are flying solo
BY: AMANDA BRUNO

On Wednesday May 2nd, the pediatric cardiology team and the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation celebrated the 11th successful round of pediatric open-heart surgery and the 5th successful catheterization mission at the Juan María de Salvatierra General Hospital in La Paz. Of course, any successful medical procedure is cause for celebration, but the team at Salvatierra should be especially proud of this achievement. It is one of just 20 hospitals within the Secretariat of Health in Mexico that has an accredited cardiology program. The trained local team, along with the support of doctors and nurses from Omaha Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, make up a well-rounded and accomplished team of professionals that is hard to come by throughout the rest of the country. The collaboration and hard work of these two teams has given hope to more than 748 children and families across the state of Baja California Sur, and it is after five years of training and multinational teamwork that they have been able to reach this milestone.

The Salvatierra General Hospital opened its doors in 2010 after relocating from their downtown location. The new building came with updated equipment and facilities, and is regarded as the premier hospital in the state of Baja California Sur. The hospital boasts the only (and much needed) pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) in the state, a pediatric hematology-oncology unit (UHOP), and a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).  Having the only PICU in the state is no small matter; it not only includes a specific and isolated area with four dedicated beds (plus five more for special events, such as these missions), world-class facilities, and the necessary life-saving, high-tech equipment and supplies, but also a chief pediatric intensivist, highly qualified supporting pediatricians, and a specialized nursing staff available 24/7. Although it is a general hospital that treats medical issues of all kind from across the state, Salvatierra is clearly very child-centered, and they have the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation to thank for much of that.

Tom Walsh, who saw that children with cancer in Los Cabos had no options in the state as far as receiving care, started the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation (LCCF) in 2002. At first, the program provided support in sending children with cancer and heart defects from Baja California Sur to the United States for treatment. They also sent patients to the Pediatric Hospital in Sinaloa. By 2009, the LCCF began working with local doctors to provide training in important pediatric surgeries and procedures, and in 2012, after the Salvatierra General Hospital had opened, recruited Dr. Eduardo Altamirano, a pediatric oncologist from Sinaloa, to begin treating children in La Paz.

The LCCF works closely with the Salvatierra General Hospital through three of their four different program pillars. The first pillar and initial inspiration of the founder, Spirit of Joy, helped to fund and accredit the UHOP at Salvatierra, and also provides support to the families of patients by supplying transportation to and from the hospital for patients all over the state. Additionally, this pillar includes support for Casa Valentina, a shelter where patients and their families can stay free of charge while the patient receives treatment at Salvatierra. The second pillar, Sprit of Love, funds and supports the Pediatric Cardiology Program and its patients at Salvatierra. This program began in 2013 and has since provided nearly 1,400 cardiology services to children across Baja California Sur. The third pillar, Spirit of Hope, supports the PICU and NICU at Salvatierra by providing training to doctors and nurses, and through the donation of necessary equipment and medical supplies.

Of all of the invaluable services and support provided by the LCCF, it is near impossible to pick the one that is the most important or noteworthy. Perhaps the most crucial piece, though, is their support in training medical personnel to utilize the facilities and equipment at Salvatierra. LCCF began working with doctors and nurses from the Omaha Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in 2004. Dr. James Hammel of the Omaha team performed the first open-heart surgery in Baja California Sur in 2013, and by 2015 Dr. Hammel’s team was training a local team in La Paz to perform these surgeries. The local team and the Omaha team have continued working closely since Dr. Hammel’s arrival in 2013, and by this most recent round of surgeries his oversight was minimal, with Dr. Hammel acknowledging that he had only felt it necessary to spend about 15 minutes in the operating room—the local team has reached the point of no longer needing him there. Also notable is the accreditation of each of the pediatric units at Salvatierra. With the help of the LCCF, the UHOP, the cardiology program, and the PICU have all been fully accredited and are thus able to receive federal funds for their continued functionality.

At the opening of the Salvatierra General Hospital in 2010, then-president Felipe Calderón said, “the Salvatierra Hospital will change the history of Baja California Sur as far as health is concerned. There will be a watershed in this hospital….” President Calderón hit the nail on the head; the Salvatierra Hospital, with the help of the LCCF, has totally changed the quality of and accessibility to healthcare for children in the state for the better.

LCCF leads hospital visits monthly (the next one is June 20th), and is happy to take along anyone interested in seeing their work in action. LCCF provides transportation to and from the hospital, including a stop for breakfast, to anyone in Baja Sur who wants to go. For information on hospital visits, contact LCCF via email at contact@loscaboschildren.org. To learn more about the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation and to donate to their cause, visit their website at www.loscaboschildren.org. Opportunities for donations and volunteering abound!