Boy from Honduras receives lifesaving heart surgery in Houston
Within a month, 2-year-old Jose Gabriel traveled to Tomball and received surgery that changed his life before heading back home.
Gabriel and his mother, Kerly Gabriela, were flown into Houston by HeartGift, a nonprofit organization providing lifesaving heart surgery for children around the world with lack of resources, with six patients being given care a year. After arriving Sept. 11, Gabriel received heart surgery and stayed with a host family in Tomball before going back to his home in Catacamas, Olancho, Honduras.
Rachael Wright, executive director for the Houston branch of HeartGift, said Gabriel was selected after Dr. Sheree Lynch’s — codirector of Centro Medico Monte Sinai, Catacamas, Olancho and family physician — recommended him for surgery. Gabriel was born with ventricular septal defect, aortic septal defect and patent ductus arteriosus, meaning he had a hole in his heart.
“We connect with different doctors and families and organizations who work in developing countries,” she said. “We presented [Gabriel’s] case to a medical committee here in Houston and they said he’s a good candidate for the heart surgery.”
After being selected, Gabriel and Gabriela were set to stay with his host family in Tomball. Wright said host families are required to have one family member that knows the patient’s native language and are required to have a spare room for the patient and their family members. HeartGift patients typically stay in the area for one month for surgery, recovery and follow-up appointments.
Rachel McCorkle, who hosted Gabriel and his mother, said the experience was overall positive for her and her family, although she was the only one that knew Spanish well enough to talk to Gabriela.
“It’s been challenging and rewarding,” she said. “It’s just a process I’ve never experienced before, having people in my home that long. …I think one of the things I was disappointed with was that as the only Spanish speaker in my community, I’ve been the only one that’s been able to really interact with Gabriela.”
On Sept. 20, Gabriel received his surgery at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, which HeartGift has a partnership with along with UT Health Center at Houston.
Dr. John Breinholt, associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and pediatric cardiologist at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, said Gabriel’s conditions affected his growth and ability to move. Breinholt had discussions with Gabriela about her son’s recovery, including when he will be able to walk.
The surgery closed the hole between the left and right side of Gabriel’s heart. The hole caused Gabriel’s body to work harder than needed due to his lungs having to pump up to four times the amount of blood than necessary, Breinholt said.
“These kids, when they’re babies, they often sweat a lot when they’re feeding because feeding is the most exercise you get when you’re a baby,” he said. “So it is basically like getting a workout, or trying to coordinate feeding and breathing and all this work that’s going on.”
Breinholt said the operation gives Gabriel the potential to have a healthier life, but that he may have other conditions unrelated to his heart.
“Typically, we would do this surgery at six months of age, sometimes sooner if they become very symptomatic,” Breinholt said. “As a result of that, often times children are smaller, their development is delayed. His is definitely delayed, but his is delayed for a little bit more reason than typical.”
Wright said HeartGift and Wright continue to stay in contact with children after their surgery to provide them resources in their home country. One patient of HeartGift from Belize is seen on a regular basis by a group in Omaha, Nebraska, Breinholt said.
Gabriel’s surgery gives him the ability to recover from other potential health problems through physical therapy in Honduras. Prior to surgery, physical therapists were wary of working with Gabriel because of his condition. Gabriel may not have been able to safely go through physical therapy, but with the hole in his heart now closed, Gabriel’s body will be able to handle more exercise than before.
“We were actually talking about how much he can be pushed and stuff like that. He’s a normal kid from that standpoint,” Wright said.
Gabriel returned home Oct. 11 after his last checkup on Oct. 9. He is expected to recover quickly due to being a child, Breinholt said.
“He has the ability to gain weight because he’s not burning calories all of the time,” he said. “He’s had his repair and now he’s just kind of recovering from it. It’s pretty fast. Children are extraordinarily resilient.”