The Beat of a Heart

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

roxannaIn biological terms, the heart is a muscle, a pump moving the vital materials of our blood throughout the body. It beats about 3 billion times during the average lifetime. The heart, with its constant function and immense bodily responsibility, allows us to live. 

The heart is also described in psychological terms, a broken heart, a healing heart, a forgiving heart, a loving heart. Metaphorically, the heart can laugh, it can smile; it acts with and without reason.

So what happens when a person, a child, has a heart condition in a place where no medical care is available? You could ask the mother of Roxanna, a young Nbobe girl from the remote village of Quebrada Sal in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Heartbreaking? Absolutely. But for eight year old Roxanna, it was an undeviating matter of life or death.

While seeking a physical at a medical clinic held in her village, a medical student volunteering with the Floating Doctors noticed an abnormal beat in Roxanna’s heart. Her mother explained that she grew tired very quickly while playing with the other children and complained of chest pains often.

The Floating Doctors, a medical non-profit serving the indigenous communities of Bocas, arranged an ultrasound of Roxanna’s heart at the National Children’s Hospital in David. The diagnosis: pulmonary valve stenosis, a narrowing of the valve in the pulmonary artery that carries blood to the lungs. When children are very small this condition affects them less, but as they begin to enter puberty their bodies grow, and they require more blood. If it goes untreated, there is a very high risk of sudden death. This condition also isolates children affected by it as they eventually lack any energy at all for playtime with others.

It was clear that Roxanna would need surgery in order to have an active long life. Over the course of nearly a year donations were raised and the right specialist was found for the procedure. The Floating Doctors developed a partnership with Tom Ford of Fundacion de Obsequio de Vida that proved to be instrumental in Roxanna’s case, as they host interventional cardiologists from many different specialties and countries including Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama.

Ten months after Roxanna’s diagnosis, the essential components they had all been waiting for finally fell into place and everyone proceeded as planned.The surgeon was able to go through the femoral artery in Roxanna’s leg to correct the problem with her valve. This is an excellent alternative considering open heart surgery is very risky.

FDPICThe surgery was a great success, and Roxanna left the hospital with her mother just three days later. The last time Dr. Benjamin Labrot, Medical Director of the Floating Doctors, called to ask about Roxanna, her mother replied, “She’s out playing.”
Today, Roxanna is able to live a full life thanks to so many people who heard her story, thought of their loved ones, their own children and did everything they could to help.

***Special thanks to Tom Ford and his hard working team at Fundacion de Obsequio de Vida, David and Suzanne Smith at Casa Cayuco for volunteering their time and resources to transport patients in need of care, The National Children’s Hospital in David, and the Floating Doctors for providing healthcare to those who previously had none.


Written by Casie Dean

Editor in Chief, The Bocas Breeze