These doctors are saving hearts and lives in India

Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan founded the Little Moppet Heart Foundation with the sole purpose to cater to the needs of children with congenital heart defects.

Four-year-old Akashmathi, an active child, runs around joyfully. However, two and a half years ago, a normal life for Akashmathi looked extremely challenging. His father, Senthil Kumar, says, “When my son was one and a half years old, we realized that his milestones were getting delayed and he was panicking [at the] sounds of an auto or a tractor.”

Akashmathi’s parents assumed that he was too young to handle these sounds. However, when he started getting frequent colds, they took him to the doctor who diagnosed the problem as Congenital Heart Defects (CHD).

The estimated number of children born with CHD is more than 200,000 per year. About 78,000 babies die every year due to CHD. The numbers are shocking, and the country loses young lives every day.

“There are more than 40 congenital heart conditions affecting kids,” shares Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan, a pediatric cardiac surgeon and founder of the Little Moppet Heart Foundation. The cost of corrective heart surgery is between 1-5 lakhs INR (1,500 USD-7,000 USD, depending on the type of defect and severity of the child’s health), impossible for poor villagers who rely on small daily wages. Kumar, a driver, could not afford the medical treatment for Akashmathi.

cardiac doctor with a patient Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan (pictured left) made the life-changing decision to quit his highly paid medical career and start a foundation. (Photo: Little Moppet Heart Foundation)

In November 2016, the Little Moppet Heart Foundation organized a camp in Madurai, a city in the South Indian state Tamil Nadu, to screen kids for congenital heart diseases free of cost. Akashmathi attended this camp and was advised surgery by Dr. Nallaiyan. He underwent a successful surgery within three days.

CHD is curable if detected and treated early. However, more often than not, patients approach doctors at the late stage of disease, explains Dr Nallaiyan. “With current medical procedures, the structural abnormality of many heart conditions is treatable through early medical intervention,” he explains.

But in later stages, the severe pathology makes surgery difficult and symptomatic treatment places restrictions on activities, with patients facing an unpredictable life span. “In spite of technology, research, and studies on corrective heart surgery, these kids [are] losing a chance to live a normal life, [and it] feels wrong,” he adds.

Three reasons contribute towards delaying of a medical diagnosis; namely, illiteracy, unawareness among parents, and financial expenses. Ill-equipped medical facilities, inaccessibility, and parents' fears about their children surviving surgery are other factors.

Instead of feeling helpless and watching children succumb to CHD, Dr. Nallaiyan decided to take some positive action. Quitting a well-paying job, he launched the Little Moppet Heart Foundation in Madurai with his wife, Dr. Hemapriya Natesan, for free medical diagnosis and treatment to the poor in November 2016.

doctor with patient in india To date, the foundation has conducted 23 camps, over 23,600 screenings, and 218 CHD correction surgeries — free of cost. (Photo: Little Moppet Heart Foundation)

They began by identifying kids in the 0-15 years bracket with curable heart defects or diseases by conducting camps in rural areas, urban, and semi-urban slums and providing treatment. Patients unable to attend camps can visit their foundation headquarters in Madurai to receive treatment.

The consultation and surgeries are performed by Dr. Nallaiyan himself. On February 14, 2018, when the world was celebrating Valentine’s Day, he was mending a heart, honoring Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Day by conducting his 102nd free heart surgery on eight-year-old Janani Ramnad.

For minor congenital heart problems, it can be fine to wait for five years, but critical conditions require immediate surgery. Lack of knowledge confuses the parents, often leading them to postpone medical treatment.

“Many times, parents discuss among themselves without understanding the actual situation, and decide to wait — following the example of other patients who may have a minor heart issue and delayed the surgery. They approach us when their kid’s condition has deteriorated and surgery becomes impossible,” explains Dr. Natesan.

doctor with a child patient The consultation and surgeries are performed by Dr. Nallaiyan himself. (Photo: Little Moppet Heart Foundation)

That's why spreading awareness about CHD and counseling parents to take the right course of action is crucial.

So far, the foundation has conducted 23 camps, over 23,600 screenings, and 218 CHD correction surgeries — free of cost. Their vision is to ensure that parents, especially from lower socio-economic classes, are aware about congenital heart disease and understand the importance of early diagnosis.

Initially, the doctors worked with their own savings and through financial help from friends and relatives. At present, they are trying to raise money through crowdfunding and depend on anonymous donations. However, the funding is insufficient and as a result, they have a waitlist of patients in need of surgery.

group of people in india at camp for free testing The foundation organizes camps in Madurai like these to screen kids for congenital heart diseases free of cost. (Photo: Little Moppet Heart Foundation)

“We need a medical facility with proper infrastructure. We are discussing the possibility of [teaming] up with a few hospitals in and around Madurai for the use of infrastructure and basic accommodations free of cost for patients,” shares Dr. Nallaiyan.

Their vision is to have an advanced center for congenital heart disease in the country with state-of-the-art facilities, equipment, and an institute to train young surgeons in the field.

The sound of cheerful laughter from kids and parents visiting for a regular check-up after surgery makes the doctors happy. “We are grateful to see our medical knowledge and expertise saving lives of little ones,” they say.

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Nupur Roopa is a freelance writer and journalist from New Delhi, India. She has written for national and international publications such as The Guardian UK, The Development Set, Mongabay India, Huffington Post India, Live Mint Sunday India, Mint week-end vacations India, The Quint India, BLink Hindu Business Line, Asiavillenews India, The Humming Notes, Indian Moms Connect and Child (Indian Edition).

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