Three families will be celebrating Thanksgiving together this year, grateful that two young boys have a new chance at a healthy life.
Tuguldur Ganzorig, 1, and Munkhbayar Munkhbat, 2, of Mongolia, along with their mothers and an interpreter, have spent the past few weeks living with a host family in eastern North Carolina, where the boys received life-altering heart surgery.
"To see my child running around healthy and to be healthy and laughing makes my heart happy," Tuguldur's mother, Oyunchimeg Dashbalbar, said through an interpreter.
ECU pediatric cardiologist Dr. Charlie Sang plays with the two children from Mongolian who received heart surgeries through Samaritan's Purse. The children are, standing, Munkhbat Munkhbayar and seated, Tuguldur Ganzorig.
They are here because of Samaritan's Purse Children's Heart Project, the Franklin Graham-led ministry that matches children around the world who need heart surgery but don't have access to it in their home countries with medical centers that can provide the surgery.
Physicians at East Carolina University, along with Vidant Medical Center, have operated on more than 30 children through the project since 2001. Dr. Jasper Lewis, a local dentist, provides dental care to the children before surgery to prevent infection-related complications, and Eastern Radiologists and East Carolina Anesthesia Associates also donate services.
Tuguldur had a ventricular septal defect, one or more holes in the wall that separates the right and left ventricles of the heart. It's one of the most common congenital heart defects.
Munkhbayar had Tetralogy of Fallot, which involves four anatomical abnormalities of the heart, including a ventricular septal defect. It results in low oxygenation of the blood.
Neither defect was life-threatening, but both would lead to deteriorating health, decreased activity levels and a premature death, said Dr. Charlie Sang, the pediatric cardiologist who cared for the children before and after surgery.
"There's a finite window until you get to a point where you can no longer do surgery," said Sang, chief of pediatric cardiology at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. In the United States, the typical age for surgery for congenital heart defects is 3 to 6 months, Sang said. Once a child reaches 2 years old, chances for a full repair begin to diminish.
Dr. Theodore Koutlas, associate professor of cardiovascular sciences at ECU, performed the surgeries. He said both procedures went well.
Tuguldur has fully recovered from his surgery, and he and his mother will be flying home Monday. Munkhbayar has some fluid buildup around his heart and is receiving medication for that. Once the fluid clears -- probably within two weeks, Sang said -- he’ll be able to go home.
Even with that slight delay, having her son healthy again with a bright outlook is exciting, said his mother, Khosbayar Oyun.
"It's a great feeling," she said through an interpreter. "It's unbelievable. I am really happy." She works as a herder in the Mongolian countryside.
Their host family is Ainslie and Marty Guion of Cove City. Their church, Tabernacle Baptist in New Bern, sponsored the children's trip, meaning church members provided housing, food and local transportation for the families. Pastor Chuck Barber and his wife, Judy, of Landmark Baptist Church in Greenville, also opened their home to the children and their mothers when they were in Greenville.
Ainslie Guion said three of her four children are grown and the fourth is a senior in high school. So having two toddlers in the house has been "wonderful."
"Reminds me of when our children were little and how special that is," she said. She said Tuguldur enjoys music and seems to help the choir director "conduct" the music when they go to church.
Munkhbayar is rambunctious and got the nickname "Taz," as in Tasmanian devil, from Marty Guion. "He gets into everything," he said.
Ainsley Guion said their Thanksgiving meal will include traditional American fare plus a Mongolian dish or two if the moms have time to help.
"We've fallen in love with them," she said. "They're beautiful people. They're wonderful mothers."
Oyunchimeg Dashbalbar, who is a chemistry teacher in Mongolia, said she has much to be thankful for as she celebrates the American holiday.
"One of these is Samaritan's Purse, which allowed my child to have this surgery," she said through an interpreter. "The Guion family for inviting us into their home and the interpreter, who's been with us the whole time."
Their interpreter, Gantuya Galsandorj, described the reaction of Tuguldur's mother when she found out her son desperately needed heart surgery.
"She broke down," she said. "She cried. She was so scared. Now, I see her smiling; every time we talk about Togo, she lights up."
In the United States, the cost of surgery to repair a congenital heart defect can range from $30,000 to $80,000, said Cynthia Bonsall, director of the Children's Heart Project.
Sang said approximately 12,000 children born in the United States each year have a congenital heart defect. Some clear up on their own, while others require intervention.
He summed up the surgeries this way: "What a perfect setting for Thanksgiving."
Since it began in 1997, the Children's Heart Project has brought more than 960 children to North America to receive heart surgery and treatments unavailable in their home countries. More information is available online at http://www.samaritanspurse.org.
Tuguldur Ganzorig, left, and Munkhbat Munkhbayar received heart surgeries from ECU physicians. Tuguldur had his surgery Oct. 30 and Munkhbat had his Oct. 29.