Lessons From the Heart in Nairobi

Miracles happen as students document Children's HeartLink

It’s early Monday morning, a sunny Feb. 24 near the equator. After a Sunday of sightseeing, the crisp lines of the “Out of Africa” house and the soft tongues of giraffes we fed dissolve into the hard reality of what we came to do.

At breakfast we plan to film the surgeons, Dr. John Kariuki from Nairobi Hospital and Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi from Pittsburgh as they discuss the week ahead. After a cab ride to the hospital, Joy, Dr. Kariuki’s wife, directs us to the theater.

Three students – Amanda, Jeff and Lucas – join me with camera gear as we weave through the maze of hallways. Still numb from culture shock and jet lag, we are ushered into a room with lockers and a stack of green scrubs. While struggling to find the right-size fireman’s boots, it dawns on me – “theater” is a British term for operating room.

The antiseptic smell hits Amanda hard as we approach the double doors. Lightheaded and almost the color of her scrubs, she decides to sit this one out. Lucas, Jeff and I walk with our cameras into a sea of green-clad bodies hunched over a brightly lit table. Around them, nurses and technicians tune surgical instruments and a bypass machine. Five-year-old Umazi’s tiny body is on center stage.

Two hours and two videotapes later, her patched heart is pumping again. As they close her wound, we rush out of the theater to the ICU, where we prepare for her entrance.

Our week in Kenya had begun – a week of surgeries and recoveries, sickness and health, riches and poverty – in the heart of Africa.

This journey began for me the previous fall, when Dr. Ellen Kennedy, the university’s service-learning coordinator, called with an “exciting opportunity.” Children’s HeartLink, a Twin Cities charity that assembles medical teams and coordinates trips to developing countries, wondered if I would be interested in taking students abroad to shoot a mission as the American team taught advanced surgical techniques to save the lives of children. I had produced documentaries before but never in such exotic circumstances. During the first meeting, when they told me that their primary concern was that the students would have a good learning experience, I was hooked.

Little did I know where this trip would take us. By January, the location had changed from Bangalore, India, to Nairobi, Kenya. I had chosen six students with more video production experience than the two course prerequisites and, I hoped, the dispositions to handle the uncertainty that lay ahead. Brad Jacobsen from St. Thomas’ video services was also coming along to help manage the equipment and shoot video of the mission and students at work.

With little more than two weeks before this Advanced Video Production course began and two days before I had to pay for the plane tickets, we were still a few thousand dollars away from our goal even with St. Thomas grants and community support. Then Dr. Judith Dwyer, the university executive vice president, came through with enough for all the tickets. Her “extra help” also meant rooms with the medical team at the Fairview Hotel instead of a hostel.

What a blessing that turned out to be. The medical team – cardiac surgeon Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi (from Nairobi Hospital), cardiologist Dr. Jose Ettedgui (from Jacksonville, Fla.), technician Jim Clendaniel (also from Jacksonville), nurse Lisa Wispe (from Pittsburgh) and technician Eric Fuller (from San Francisco) – was truly committed to the mission and to letting us into their heads and hearts. We spent our days documenting their professional accomplishments and our nights getting to know them as compassionate people. Giving back to a world that had been good to them was a major motivation for donating their skills and time to the mission. Saving kids’ lives was the remarkable result.

Much of our time at Nairobi Hospital was spent with the children, specifically three girls: little Umazi, 18-month-old Anisha and 15-year-old Lydia. We chose them because their surgeries were early in the week and they were likely to be out of the hospital before we left on Saturday. We wanted to document their progress through this miraculous process.

We saw much more than we expected. John Cushing and Catherine Higgins from Children’s HeartLink had arranged home visits to the families of former patients. On Tuesday, Catherine, Letitia, Christina and I went to the home of Davis, a 6-year-old twin, on the outskirts of Nairobi. His relatives had traveled as far as 400 miles to be with us. We were not prepared for the hospitality and thanks we received. The homemade pastries, cookies, bottled pop and chai must have cost the boy’s father a week’s salary. At Davis’ Catholic school, the children greeted us in unison and sang songs. I was overwhelmed.

Wednesday brought us the trip of a lifetime. At 6 a.m., Swedish Lutheran missionaries Jan-Äke and Britt Thorell packed Catherine, Christina, Jeff and me into their Land Rover and headed toward Ngurumani, a Masaai village in the Rift Valley. Cushing had arranged the trip, warning us that the family of Farida, who had surgery the year before, might slaughter a goat in our honor. “It would be rude to turn down whatever they serve you,” he cautioned.

When I repeated his warning to my students, only Christina and Jeff were up to the challenge. Tom was committed to his production manager position at the hospital, and Letitia was firmly entrenched filming in the catheterization lab. Brad would make sure that the hospital shoots were successful. Lucas and Amanda were recovering from encounters with food-born bacteria: goat wasn’t the first thing they wanted to eat.

Catherine was also ill, but she didn’t want to miss this remarkable trip. As we bounced into the valley, I wondered if she was going to make it. After we ate our box lunches on what was barely recognizable as a road, I walked over a hill and understood the meaning of “the middle of nowhere.” There were no power lines and no sounds – only the hot, dry, rocky landscape that stretched and cracked to the mountains on either side of the valley. Our bottled water was small consolation when the outside temperature gauge on the Land Rover read 47 degrees Celsius (116.6 degrees Fahrenheit)!

This was the Rift Valley we had read about – the birthplace of mankind. We saw gazelles, secretary birds, ostriches and, later that day, zebras, wildebeests and baboons. As we arrived in Ngurumani, we were told that they had expected us on Saturday. That meant no slaughtered goat, much to our relief. And Catherine was feeling better. The houses were made of sticks and mud, some with tin sheets for a roof. Goats and chickens wandered in and out. A few of the villagers let us take their pictures, but many, in stunning, red traditional garb, refused. Some Maasai believe that taking their pictures means taking their souls.

I had read that they like to have something in return, so we brought prints of our group in front of the arches at UST – in the snow! They were a big hit, especially with the children, who had never seen the white stuff.

Farida’s father told us her story. She is much better after the surgery, almost well enough to make the two-hour walk to school with her sister.

The next day, Catherine, Tom, Christina and I met a family in a village just outside Nairobi. Seven-year-old Zainab had heart surgery the year before. She was doing well, living with her parents and brother, Sam, in a two-room shack smaller than a one-car garage. Her father made less than $30 a month. Since the waterline broke a few years ago, he straps his mule to a cart and treks a mile and a half to a well where he fills containers with water, then sells them.

At Zainab’s school the headmaster asked us to check on another girl who had a heart problem. We promised to stop at her home, another small shack at the end of a rut-lined alley. Her 11-year-old stomach was swollen like an eight-month pregnancy. We took pictures. Later the doctors at the hospital told us that they suspected she was already suffering massive organ failure, but they would check on her.

By the end of the week, we were exhausted but inspired after working 10-hour days. Many of the heart valves we had brought in our luggage were beating in young chests. The three girls were bursting with energy and on their way home after teary farewells. After hard good byes to the medical teams from Kenya and the United States, we were convinced that there are not better people on this planet.

As we flew half a planet back to Minnesota, our work had just begun. Around 2,400 minutes of videotape had been shot and was aching to be logged, organized and molded into a story of miracles that happen when people open their eyes and hearts to children in need. Telling that story has motivated my students beyond the classroom, beyond grades. I am proud of them.

They know that this story, well told, could influence others to donate time or money to save kids’ lives. What could be more powerful than that?

About the author

Tim Scully is an associate professor in communication studies. He produced the documentary, “Lessons From the Heart,” with students Letitia Englund, Christina Holm, Amanda Lutz, Lucas Munson, Tom Oszman and Jeff Sauer. He won the St. Thomas Outstanding Faculty in Service-Learning Award for 2003. Scully’s classes have created videos on civil rights, the Holocaust, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, date rape and depression. “Lessons from the Heart” is being edited with PBS broadcast in mind. Watch your local listings.

For more information about Children’s HeartLink, go to its Web site at https://www.childrensheartlink. org.