Dr. Roberto Amado-Cattaneo will work on the campus of the Black Lion Hospital in the Cardiac Center of Ethiopia.

By Kristen Cates |

There is something rewarding about fixing a broken heart in a Third World country.

Dr. Roberto Amado-Cattaneo, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Benefis Health System, is heading back to Ethiopia on Friday for the third time, to perform surgeries to repair and replace the valves of at least 12 to 14 young adults’ hearts.

These are young adults who have developed rheumatic heart disease – a condition that develops when strep throat goes undiagnosed and untreated over time – and Cattaneo and a team of health care providers from Great Falls will be bringing $100,000 in donated medical supplies to Addis Ababa. They’ll perform between 12 to 14 surgeries in the two weeks they are in Ethiopia.

“We have some sort of obligation to help these people,” Cattaneo said. “When you see these people, you realize you’re doing the right thing. It’s really an honor.”

Cattaneo has received support from Benefis Health System to cover the cost of some of the medication as well as a grant from the Benefis Health System Foundation to support the project. He’ll be taking with him anesthesiologist, Dr. Joshua Newsted; Wells Geils, a perfusionist; former Benefis nurse Jamie Warcken and current Benefis nurse Rachel Reimnitz.

“It’s so impressive,” said Dan Hollow, director of the Benefis Health Foundation. “It’s a big sacrifice to take their time time off and go.”

Cattaneo will work on the campus of the Black Lion Hospital in the Cardiac Center of Ethiopia. Cattaneo said it was started by an Ethiopian physician with ties to other physicians around the world. Teams from six different countries come in throughout the year to help with as many cases as they can.

Though Addis Ababa is the capital city, a vast majority of the population lives outside of there, with little to no access medical care. So, when a child develops strep throat, they don’t always have access to the penicillin to treat their symptoms, which is easily accessible in more developed countries. If the strep doesn’t go away, a person can then develop acute rheumatic fever. Symptoms of the fever include joint pain and carditis, which is an inflammation of the heart. If that is not treated, Cattaneo said the carditis attacks the valves of the heart and damages them, causing a person to go into heart failure.

When Cattaneo and his team perform the surgeries, which last approximately five hours, the goal is to repair the valve if possible, or replace it with a new, artificial valve. Those valves are approximately $5,000 apiece, and Cattaneo said he’s been successful in getting the manufacturer to donate 10 valves. Other equipment has been donated as well. But each of the doctors and nurses has paid for their own airfare and hotel.

“Benefis is a big supporter of my mission,” Cattaneo said.

Most of the patients he’ll see are teenagers or young adults. There are plenty of adults with rheumatic heart disease, but unfortunately, Cattaneo said, the doctors are limited to serving the patients they know have a greater chance of survival after surgery.

Though the cardiac center and doctors are well equipped, Cattaneo said it’s not uncommon for the power to go out five or six times during a surgery.

“Everything goes black until the generator kicks in,” he said.

In the process of treating patients, Cattaneo and other volunteers work with and train local hospital staff on treating patients. Still, Ethiopia is a country with more than 90 million people and not nearly enough hospitals and clinics outside of Addis Ababa. It’s not uncommon to see people sitting in the street or laying on the grounds outside of the Black Lion Hospital waiting for care, Cattaneo said.

“It’s a nonstop two weeks,” he said. “Sometimes you want to stay longer because you see the long line of people waiting.”

Source: Great Falls Tribune
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