Fighting poverty in Rwanda

Medical crises remain decades after civil war

Dr. Hal Goldberg and his wife Sandy sum up Rwanda's tragic history in a few short sentences when they tell Blaise's story. Five young men rallied around the 30-year old as he recuperated from open heart surgery in a hospital bed in Kigali. There was no family to visit him — they had all been murdered in the civil war that swept Rwanda in 1994, killing an estimated 800,000 people in three months. Like thousands of desperate, terrified children, Blaise ran and hid in the jungle. Those five boys who gathered around his hospital bed were with him then, and their bond of survival knit them together in an unbreakable brotherhood.

The 1994 genocide also decimated Rwanda's infrastructure: 75 percent of the nation's medical profession was either killed or fled the country.

In 2008, Hal, a cardiologist at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, was invited to the King Faisal Hospital in Kigali to determine the feasibility of taking medical teams from Spokane to Rwanda to perform open-heart surgeries. Sandy did not go on the initial trip, but subsequently became enmeshed in the organization that was to become Healing Hearts Northwest.

Cardiac diseases kill thousands in Rwanda. Rheumatic heart disease, nearly unheard of in the developed world, is the result of untreated streptococcal infections which cause the body's immune system to attack its own heart valves, leading to RHD and a slow and painful death.

"Rheumatic heart disease is a disease of poverty," Hal says.

Struck by the severity of the need and what they believe is a moral obligation, Hal and Sandy formed Healing Hearts Northwest in 2010. Since then, the Spokane-based nonprofit has sent surgical teams to King Faisal Hospital, where they have performed 81 open-heart surgeries, repaired numerous congenital heart defects and implanted several pacemakers. Nightmarish logistics include shipping 6,000 pounds of equipment and coordinating travel for as many as 50 people. Once on the ground, the work is exacting and stressful, as the teams perform from 16 to 18 surgeries in two weeks.

"Our goal is to establish an independent and sustainable open-heart program in Rwanda," Hal says, "through teaching, mentoring and training the Rwandan medical staff."

In their downtime, HHNW volunteers explore the vibrant capital city of Kigali, go on safari and visit the famed "Gorillas in the Mist" sanctuaries.

However, Hal bristles at the term voluntourism in connection with HHNW. Indeed, very little of what HHNW does sounds touristy. "Our volunteer staff is literally exhausted at the end of the day," he says.

When the Goldbergs talk about the resilience and spirit of the Rwandans they have worked with and treated in the beauty of the lush, mountainous nation, as well as the gorilla tracking and safaris, it is clear they have formed strong and lasting attachments. When Rwandans ask "Where are you from?" they answer "Spokanda."


The Healing Hearts Northwest time commitment is two weeks and volunteers pay their own airfare (about $2,000). Meals and hotel rooms are provided by the Rwandan government.

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