News | 5 years ago

Introducing Central America’s Largest Neonatal, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit

Carolinas HealthCare System helps launch innovative care facility in Guatemala

This month, the First Lady of Guatemala will help unveil her country’s most innovative neonatal, pediatric intensive care unit. The 36-bed National Regional Hospital of Escuintla – set to open March 16 – will be the largest facility of its kind in Central America. The unit was created thanks to the International Medical Outreach (IMO) program, a partnership between Carolinas HealthCare System and the Heineman Foundation. IMO donated all the necessary supplies and machinery to fully equip the newly constructed unit. Chiquita Brands International delivered three massive containers of equipment from the United States to Guatemala. This facility also was made possible with support from the Bissell Family Foundation, The Leon Levine Foundation, Sandra and Leon Levine, and Jim and Peggy Hynes, to whom the unit is dedicated. The grand opening will be attended by representatives from Guatemala’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Development, the Guatemala Ambassador to the United States, the United States Ambassador to Guatemala, and other national and local officials. To learn more about this initiative, we spoke with Theresa Johnson, the director of Carolinas HealthCare System’s International Medical Outreach, and Francis Robicsek, MD, an internationally renowned cardiac surgeon with Carolinas HealthCare System and vice president of International Medical Outreach.

When did the idea to create the largest of its kind neonatal/pediatric intensive care unit first come about? For the last five years, this has been a dream of Dr. Calvo, the director of the hospital in Guatemala, Dr. Menendez, chief of pediatrics, and Dr. Posadas, sub-chief of pediatrics. They held tightly to this dream and never wavered. We merely stepped into their dream to make it a reality.

Why is this so needed in Central America? The infant and pediatric mortality rate is extremely high – seven times that of the US – and half of the population in Central America lives below the poverty line. Because the majority of people live in rural areas, they have difficulties to access to healthcare. . Designated areas for pediatric care are often inadequate or absent, and one of the most significant needs in Central America is the need for facilities to treat critically ill infants and children.

How was Guatemala chosen? With a population of 16 million, Guatemala is the largest country in Central America. While the International Medical Outreach team lends support to all Central American countries, our longest and most notable relationship has been with Guatemala. IMO has been working in Guatemala since the early 1970s, when it formed UNICAR, the only institution in Central America dedicated to cardiac care. Most of our support in Guatemala is directed toward the rural, national public hospitals, where the majority of the indigent population live and access to health care is inadequate.

Can you share some specifics about what equipment was donated? IMO donated all the equipment – ventilators, patient monitors, incubators, infant warmers, cribs – to fully furnish the unit. Before, the National Hospital in Escuintla rented its equipment, which put a tremendous burden on a hospital that is already struggling with enormous budget constraints and a burgeoning patient load. They simply cannot afford to rent enough equipment to meet the demand. For example, some infant patients share a monitor that sits on a plastic chair between them. The monitor gets connected to one baby for about two hours, then moved to the next baby for about the same amount of time, and this process is repeated over and over again. Other equipment in the unit, like infant warmers, also were broken, so they used gooseneck lamps to keep the babies warm instead.

Why did IMO want to be part of this project? After hearing the frustration and desperation of the physicians who lack the tools to treat critically ill infants – seeing multiple babies in an infant warmer made to hold only one baby, learning of the high infant mortality rate and seeing the hopeless look on a parent’s face – how could we not start this project? Every parent wants the best possible care for their child, no matter if it’s the US or Guatemala.

How will IMO continue to support this initiative? Our doctors will be available to provide consultations, we may send more donations, and – through the leadership of Dr. Dwight Bailey, medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Levine Children’s Hospital – medical training is underway. We also will use donated virtual communication equipment for education, training and consultation purposes.

The Carolinas HealthCare System IMO team is small. How does it feel to accomplish something so grand? While we are grateful that we can help, I am not sure any of us ever feel like we “finished the job” because the need is so great. But, it is really about the healthcare providers. Time after time, we stand in awe of them. To watch these dedicated men and women work with little or no equipment and supplies – and to maintain the stamina, resiliency and good attitude day after day under stressful conditions – is nothing short of remarkable. Watching the local providers after IMO has completed a donation gives everyone an awesome feeling.

Dr. Robicsek, why do this type of work? It’s the people. Besides, we have the resources, knowledge and volunteers, so why not put them to good use and help our neighbors?

Be Part of the Journey

Dr. Robicsek, Theresa Johnson and several teammates from Carolinas HealthCare System will travel to Guatemala for the grand opening event. You can follow them on their journey on Carolinas HealthCare System’s Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as the Levine Children’s Hospital Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.