East Carolina University pediatric cardiologist Dr. Charlie Sang Jr. interacts with 20-month-old Suvdaa Munkhbayaar, left, and Sukhbat Batzaya. The children traveled with their mothers from Mongolia for life-altering heart procedures in Greenville. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Partnership provides life-altering surgery for Mongolian toddlers

Nov. 24, 2015

By Amy Adams Ellis
ECU News Services

Two families from Mongolia will celebrate their first Thanksgiving this week, grateful their youngest members have each received a second chance for a healthy life.

A pair of 20-month-old toddlers traveled with their mothers and an interpreter from Mongolia to Greenville recently to receive life-altering heart surgery, thanks to a partnership between the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Vidant Medical Center and Children’s Heart Project, an international relief project that matches up children who need heart surgery – but lack access to it in their home countries – with North American medical centers willing to donate their services.
Congenital heart defects left Sukhbat Batzaya, above, unable to sustain more than 30 seconds of activity without rest. Following his surgery, he maintains normal levels of activity.

Both children suffered from congenital heart defects that in the United States are typically repaired at just a few months of age, according to Dr. Charles Sang, the ECU pediatric cardiologist who provided the pre- and post-operative care for the children. ECU pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Koh Takeuchi performed the surgeries. 

Ainslie Guion, whose family is hosting the project’s participants in their Cove City home for the third consecutive year, said that Suvdaa Munkhbayar “moved like a snail, and did just a little crawling” when she arrived at the end of October. But the little girl took her first steps soon after the surgery and is now walking without assistance.

Suvdaa – who lives with her parents and two older siblings in a traditional, one-room ger in rural Mongolia – suffered from a ventricular septal defect, a hole in the bottom wall of the heart that allows too much blood to flow to one side of the heart, causing increased blood pressure in the vessels of the lungs.  

The young male patient, Sukhbat Batzaya, had a condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot, characterized by a hole in the bottom wall of the heart plus obstructed blood flow to the artery leading to the lungs. The resulting lack of oxygenated blood to his muscles caused him to tire easily.

“Before surgery, he would go full speed for about 30 seconds, then he would have to stop and squat to recover before he could go another 30 seconds,” Guion said. “Now there’s no pause button on that boy.”

Sukhbat’s mother, Nyamka Davaasuren, is a pediatric intensive care nurse in Mongolia.

“I want to say thank you to the host family and the doctors and all of the other people that helped,” she said through an interpreter. “The care here is much different and it was able to save my son’s life.”  
Suvdaa Munkhbayaar, who previously moved in a slow crawl, took her first steps soon after surgery.

“Just look at them,” said Sang. “They’re smiling now. When they first came in, they were screaming…and it was a 4-hour ordeal just to evaluate them. Now they feel so much better. They’re running around and fighting each other for toys like they’re brother and sister.

“Now they have a future,” Sang added. “Now they can be productive. Now maybe one of them can become a physician that will take care of children’s heart disease in their country. That’s what I’m hoping.”

Children’s Heart Project is a ministry of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. The project screens and identifies children suffering from congenital heart defects and in need of surgery; locates physicians and hospitals in North America willing to donate their medical services; arranges for host families, and accompanies the children, their mothers, and an interpreter to North America—furnishing round-trip transportation.

Since 1997, the project has helped more than 1,000 children travel to North America for heart surgery and treatments unavailable in their home countries. Sukhbat and Suvdaa are the 33rd and 34th Children’s Heart Project patients to be treated in Greenville since ECU and Vidant Medical Center began partnering with the project in 2001.

“As Americans pause to reflect on all we have to be grateful for, these families are experiencing their first Thanksgiving celebration with healthy hearts that are filled with gratitude,” said Cindy Bonsall, director of Children’s Heart Project. “We are so thankful to the physicians at the Brody School of Medicine and the staff at Vidant Medical Center for partnering with us year after year to give children a second chance at life.”