July 7, 2022
5 min read

STS News, Summer 2022 — From research funding to traveling fellowships to specialized training that can help surgeons introduce state-of-the-art programs worldwide, The Thoracic Surgery Foundation (TSF) offers career-changing opportunities for surgeons at every experience level. Support from TSF can fuel projects like Salvando Corazones (“Saving Hearts”), led by Aldo Rafael, MD, a recipient of the TSF Every Heartbeat Matters award.

On their latest mission trip this spring, Dr. Rafael’s team was able to save the lives of 11 patients from underserved regions of Peru. These patients had rheumatic and degenerative cardiac conditions such as rheumatic valvulopathies, aortic aneurysms, and severe coronary artery disease. The team focused on minimally invasive valve replacement, working alongside local surgeons, anesthesiologists, perfusionists and nurses at Dos de Mayo hospital in Lima—and giving them hands-on training in new techniques.

“We had the pleasure of showcasing this novel approach to the cardiac surgery department at the hospital,” wrote Dr. Rafael in his TSF report. “There was a collaborative effort with the education and hands-on teaching involved with each surgical case.”

All of the patients did well postoperatively, with no significant surgical complications, the team reported.

Dr. Rafael has a special place in his own heart for Dos de Mayo because it served as his training ground—he was the first graduate from the institution’s cardiovascular surgery program. Born and raised in Jauja-Junin, Peru, about 6 hours outside Lima, he says he now has the privilege of giving back to his Peruvian community. “Salvando Corazones has allowed me to form a close friendship—a brotherhood—with many healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, technicians, and administrative staff,” Dr. Rafael said.

The March 2022 Salvando Corazones mission saved the lives of 11 patients who otherwise had no recourse to correct their heart defects.

Minimally Invasive Techniques Help Combat Ripple Effects of Rheumatic Fever

As a surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Rafael has access to new procedural techniques that under-resourced countries don’t, he stated. “Minimally invasive valve replacement surgery for rheumatic heart disease is the current standard of care. Salvando Corazones focuses on training the local Peruvian medical staff while providing free-of-charge cardiac surgeries to an underserved population.”

In 2013, Dr. Rafael’s team introduced Peru’s first minimally invasive valve surgery via mini-sternotomy and utilized new techniques to protect the brain during cardiopulmonary bypass. Then, in 2015, Dr. Rafael performed the first minimally invasive aortic and mitral valve replacements in Peru that were accessed via right mini-thoracotomy. “The March 2022 trip allowed me to introduce a left atrial appendage exclusion device to the surgeons at Dos de Mayo Hospital,” he said.

These surgeries helped to ensure improved quality of life for the patients by providing a long-term solution in a region where rheumatic cardiopathy remains an ongoing concern.

In low- and middle-income countries, rheumatic fever complicated by rheumatic heart disease still contributes to morbidity and premature death—accounting for up to a quarter of a million deaths every year, Dr. Rafael said. “In our patients at Dos de Mayo Hospital, we found high frequency of rheumatic valve disease—most of them in young patients. These patients usually contract rheumatic fever in childhood or adolescence and develop symptoms between 20 and 40 years of age.”

In under-resourced countries, up to 3% of school-aged children have evidence of rheumatic heart disease detected by echocardiography. Dr. Rafael identifies this as a public health problem, one that, thanks to the generosity of donors to TSF and other entities, can be addressed in a concrete way, and can certainly make all the difference for individual patients.

Amidst Pandemic, Mission Sent Lifesaving Equipment from Afar

In 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Salvando Corazones team from traveling to Peru. However, they were able to ship two donated heart-lung machines to the hospital.

“These costly machines are a limiting factor for regional hospitals in Peru to start cardiac surgery programs,” Dr. Rafael explained. “This has led to a 1,000-person waitlist at Dos de Mayo Hospital, the national referral center for cardiac surgery for 65% of the population on government insurance.” This insurance only partially covers the cost of the surgery and does so for only a limited number of patients per year, he said.

Dr. Rafael’s staff teamed up with Peruvian surgeons, perfusionists, nurses, technicians, and administrative support personnel—leaving them with the tools and skills to continue the work.

The team also was able to partner with several companies for supply donations, including valves, sutures, lap sponges, cannulas, hemoconcentrators, and more, said Dr. Rafael. Supplies that remain after the Salvando Corazones team’s departure will be used year-round by the Peruvian staff to continue saving lives.

Salvando Corazones will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, Dr. Rafael will host a minimally invasive cardiac surgery symposium at Dos de Mayo, imparting new techniques to more Peruvian surgical teams as part of a cross-continental faculty.

“Together, we have delivered—and will continue to deliver—superior patient care, and we have served a role in advancing minimally invasive surgery and therapies for advanced heart failure among the cardiothoracic surgery residency program at Dos de Mayo Hospital,” Dr. Rafael said. “On behalf of all those involved, we are grateful for your generosity, your trust, and—most importantly—your commitment to our medical mission.”

Every Heartbeat Matters Is One Among Many TSF Opportunities

The TSF Every Heartbeat Matters Award, is only one of a wide array of grant and scholarship opportunities offered by the Society's charitable arm.

Applications are open for TSF awards, and the deadline to apply for most is September 15. Learn more at thoracicsurgeryfoundation.org.

Annual Report Highlights Results of Awardee Innovation, Donor Generosity

Illustrating the stories behind the Foundation’s scholars, investigators, volunteers, and donors, the 2021 TSF Annual Report now is available.

The report features breakdowns of award disbursements, testimonials from grant recipients, photos from clinical projects and mission trips, and a listing of major gift donors.

In 2021 alone, TSF dispersed more than $1 million in funding for cardiothoracic surgery research, education, and outreach. All TSF administrative costs are absorbed by the Society and corporate grants, meaning that 100% of donations is directed toward award funding. Visit sts.org to read the report.