Welcome to the first installment of our brand-new series, “Ask a Children’s Heart Doctor”, where we aim to take our readers behind the scenes and into the world of pediatric cardiac care.
In this series, Dr. Harm Velvis, a pediatric cardiologist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field, will answer some of the most common questions asked by parents of children who were born with heart defects.
We will focus on specific heart conditions in order to shed some more light on diagnosis, treatment, and post-care. Ultimately, we hope to highlight the impact of our work on the local communities and detail the steps taken to make cardiac care accessible worldwide.
But let’s start with our titular medical professional, the children’s heart doctor himself, pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Harm Velvis.
Born in the Netherlands, Dr. Velvis embarked on a 40-year journey in medicine, guided by his passion and a heartfelt connection to pediatric cardiology.
Dr. Velvis’ decision to enter into pediatric cardiology has roots in his childhood. Harm’s younger brother was diagnosed with a heart defect as a child so for him, the world of cardiology wasn’t just the realm of textbooks; it became a lived reality, filled with annual hospital visits and a deeply personal understanding of heart disease.
When Dr. Velvis entered the world of pediatric cardiology, it was as though the universe conspired to guide him back to that childhood experience. He found himself inspired by and learning from the same pediatric cardiologist who treated his brother – Dr. Klaas Bossina, a renowned professor from Groningen in the Netherlands.
In addition to his work at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, NC, and at Albany Medical Center in Albany, NY, Harm found his calling in an organization that provides cardiac care for children around the world – Gift of Life International. His association with this life-saving cause commenced in 1996, sparking an enduring relationship that has borne fruit across the globe.
Sharing Knowledge, Saving Lives
Every great journey begins with a small step. Dr. Velvis’ initiation into overseas training visits started in Honduras in 2001. Despite this being a tough learning curve, it forged the path to Santiago, Dominican Republic, a location he holds dear.
It was here that the Gift of Life team from Albany established a program from scratch, laying the bricks of a heart-healing sanctuary, one visit at a time.
“We really felt a strong connection with the medical staff and the people of Santiago since we built that program from the ground up. Our entire team has a strong affiliation with Santiago to this day.”
Dr. Velvis’ heart now beats for Bolivia, more specifically La Paz, a city at 12,000 feet of elevation. “I enjoy Bolivia mostly because the local healthcare professionals we work with there are very motivated and that’s a real inspiration for me”.
Building Bridges of Healing
In Bolivia, Dr. Velvis isn’t just providing a service; he is part of a more extensive mission – to build a first-class cardiac care center.
“Our goal is not to just visit and do surgeries or cardiac catheterizations. Our goal is to build a program. To eventually no longer need to go there because the program has become independent and self-sustaining.” he said.
Like nurturing a plant until it can bear its fruits, this project aims to equip local facilities and healthcare professionals with the knowledge, tools, and support they need to run an independent pediatric cardiac program.
The journey isn’t always easy. It requires a lot including supportive local governments and hospitals, adequate facilities, local healthcare teams, and essential equipment. On training visits, local Rotarians support Gift of Life International by working on the logistics of these visits.
In places like El Salvador and Uganda, the dream of self-sustainability has already become a reality. These centers now operate independently, needing only occasional supplies. Dr. Velvis hopes that Bolivia, with its motivated staff, can achieve this milestone in the next four to five years.
“But it takes a lot to get there,” Dr. Velvis says. “It takes all essential pieces to come together for that to work”.
What Do You Need To Make These Trips A Success
- Local Facilities: an operating room and an intensive care unit.
- Local Health Care Professionals: to train and to share expertise.
- Local Support: support from local governments and hospitals.
The Hands That Heal
For each visit, a team of 12 to 15 specialists, supported by Gift of Life International devote a week to perform life-altering surgeries and cardiac catheterizations.
They work diligently, performing up to 10 surgeries and about 15 catheterizations per visit. Their hands repair hearts, transforming lives, one beat at a time.
Children with congenital heart defects such as Ventricular Septal Defect, Atrial Septal Defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, Patent Ductus Arteriosus, Pulmonary Stenosis, Aortic Stenosis, Coarctation, and atrioventricular septal defect (AV Canal), to name the most common defects, receive a new lease on life.
They step away from the shadow of their condition, stepping into a world full of possibilities.
A Reason to Smile
“The most rewarding experience is to see the transformation of a child, pale and blue, struggling to breathe to a vibrant, pink-cheeked kid, breathing normally and ready to embrace life.”
It’s not just the children, the joy in the eyes of parents as they see their child’s health restored — that’s what fuels Dr. Velvis.
With every training visit, every surgery, every child they treat, the Gift of Life team brings hope to communities that once thought heart defects were an irreversible sentence. This is their mission. This is their passion. And every beat of a child’s healthy heart is their greatest accomplishment.
A Day in the Life: A Medical Mission with Dr. Velvis
While in the U.S. fixing cardiac issues in children seems like a given. Dr. Velvis’ journey has shown him that in developing countries, this remains a daunting task, often perceived as impossible. Overcoming this mindset and making the impossible possible is a cornerstone of the mission of Gift of Life International.
When Dr. Velvis and his team embark on a training visit, they arrive on a Saturday, hearts brimming with anticipation and purpose. Sunday is screening day, as they meticulously examine prospective patients, determining who they can best help with surgery or cardiac catheterization.
Monday to Friday is a dance of life, with a symphony of synchronized movements in the operating theatre. Each team member, from the surgeon, anesthesiologist, perfusionist, operating room nurses, intensivists, intensive care unit nurses, to the pediatric cardiologist and respiratory therapist, plays a crucial part.
They work on two surgical cases a day, each operation taking on average 3 to 5 hours. In a week, they conduct about 10 surgeries and perform around 15 catheterizations, a feat that is as extraordinary as it is rewarding.
Dr. Velvis says, “These weeks are long and can be difficult, but at the end, you feel so happy about the work that has been accomplished.”
Doing Our Best, One Heart at a Time
The story of Gift of Life is a testament to what can be achieved in cardiac care around the world through dedicated teams of volunteer healthcare professionals.
Dr. Velvis’s journey has been a testament to his dedication and belief in the power of heart health.
The story of each dedicated healthcare professional, including the story of Dr. Velvis, illustrates how each person’s commitment, fueled by personal experiences, can lead to monumental changes in global cardiac care for children. As Gift of Life International continues to make a difference in countries around the world, Dr. Velvis is fully aware of and grateful for all the generous donations received from around the world without which none of the work would be possible.
Stay tuned for the next part in our series, “Ask a Children’s Heart Doctor” where we will continue to share insights from the front lines of pediatric cardiac care.
Join us as we beat the odds, mend hearts, and save lives. Let’s give every child a chance at life.
Rob Raylman is the Chief Executive officer for Gift of Life International. He assumed this role in 2008.
Rob is a life-long resident of New York State. He graduated Hobart College in 1984 with a BS in Political Science. Over the years, he worked for US Senator Alfonse D’Amato and held the position of Vice President for Browning-Ferris Industries (at the time, the second largest international solid waste company in the world). In 2008, Rob created the position of CEO for Gift of Life International. Since then, he was visited 38 countries on 5 continents to build the Gift of Life Global Network of 84 affiliates. During Rob’s tenure with Gift of Life International, 30 affiliates have been created while over 35,000 children have received care for their heart defects.
Rob focuses on strategically building bridges between Gift of Life programs, foreign Governments, Rotary Clubs and Districts, like-minded organizations and hospital administrations in order to address the Global Crisis of congenital heart defects.