By Samantha Magick
On the Suva seawall at Nasese, a huge heart faces out to sea. The site of the Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Children’s Hospital, it is a symbol of the passion a family and the community they have built, have brought to caring for Pacific children with congenital heart defects.
Established by the Sai Prema Foundation, which is inspired by the humanitarian work of spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the hospital opened in April 2022 and builds on the work of a children’s health screening centre and medical centre operated by the foundation next door, and other programs, such as a national feeding program, blood drives, dental checks, and rural medical outreach efforts.
Since April last year, international medical teams visiting the hospital have given 246 children free heart surgeries.
Those operations had been performed less frequently before the hospital opened. The turning point came, Hospital Director, Dr Krupuli Tappoo says, when the impact of those surgeries became evident.
“When we do the surgeries, at the end we have a ‘gift of life’ ceremony, where after the surgeries before the child goes home, we give a certificate, we give them some gifts, and we’re acknowledging that they’ve got a new life, because many of these children would not make it if they didn’t have the surgery.
“There was a one-and-a-half-year-old child, and this mother was there with the child. And she said, oh, ‘Jesus has saved my child.’ And then she just started weeping. She kept crying for a really long time.
“So we said, ‘tell us a bit more.’ She explained to us how, ever since her son was born, every couple of months they were in and out of hospital. [Baby] was sick with chest infections, not feeling well, a lot of challenges. And eventually, it was picked up that he had a lesion in his heart. She was told, ‘Okay, he needs surgery.’ And she said, ‘Oh, please, you know, operate’ but was told, ‘We don’t have that, we can’t do it here, you have to go overseas,’ and she was told it would cost up to $100,000.
“This single mother works, her household earns $5,000 a year. She tried her best to raise some funds, raised $5,000, but got to the point where she realised that there was no way she could raise that much money. And what she said really hit us hard. She said, ‘So I realised that I will just quit my job, go back to the village and spend time with my son waiting for him to die.’
“So we sort of thought to ourselves, this is so sad, how can this happen? If these children had access, no parent would have to feel this way. And because money is a factor, if you had money, your child would live. And if you don’t have money, your child will die.”
The World Health Organization says that 1% of all children born are born with congenital heart defects. Dr Tappoo says 50% of those kids will need surgical intervention, about half of those within the first year of life for a good outcome.
Congenital heart defects, which are often undetectable at birth, can lead to severe health issues if left untreated. The foundation’s heart screening centre is focused on early detection, as Dr Tappoo says, the heartbreaking reality is that some children arrive too late for surgery.
Free and accessible
The first thing you notice on entering the hospital is the absence of a cashier’s desk. There is a colourful play area for children, comfortable seats and a big map illustrating the network of hospitals to which the facility belongs, but nowhere to pay.
That’s because the hospital offers its services completely free of charge.
For families struggling with their child’s diagnosis, that is a massive relief.
Speaking at a ‘Gift of Life’ ceremony recently Adi Balawa Baleiono described how worried she was when she heard that her daughter, Meiva Raikanawa had two holes in her heart. They had taken Meiva to the Colonial War Memorial hospital with what they thought was pneumonia, when she was diagnosed.
Meiva’s grandmother, Esita, said the baby had gone from being lethargic and weak, to happy and active.
“I want to thank all the people inside [the hospital]. All the nurses and the doctors, they supported my daughter and my grand daughter. They provide everything.
“Everything is beautiful, so nice here. When we enter that door, they welcome us, they are laughing with us, they shake hands, they say bula.”
Founding trustees, Mahendra and Maya Tappoo note that the $25 million hospital is the “largest project ever undertaken by an NGO in the history of Fiji.” And while the Tappoos are the driving force behind the foundation and hospital, support has come from the Fiji government, which gifted the land it sits on, faith communities such as the LDS Church, United Nations agencies, other NGOs and corporates. Individuals stepped up as well; a New Zealand couple gifted some of their retirement savings to pay for a state-of-the-art echocardiogram machine; an American man sold a home and donated the proceeds to the Foundation.
“If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have even started building, we could even put a hole in the ground,” said Dr Tappoo.
The visiting medical teams performing operations at the hospital come from India, Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, the UK and other locations. They are all volunteers.
Director of Cardiac Surgery at the Queensland Children’s Hospital in Australia, Dr Prem Venugopal led the most recent team, saying that it was an amazing experience to conduct the successful surgeries of 14 children, six of whom were less than six months old.
In the future, Dr Tappoo sees the hospital as extending its services to Pacific Island children from more countries, building capacity for screening in the region, and expanding its research, education and teaching work. Its core role will remain life-saving operations.
“Some babies will be very symptomatic from birth,” said Dr Tappoo. “They’re very critical lesions. And if you don’t operate within the first month of life, they’re just going to die. So there’s some really critical ones. And then there are others, which you need to operate within the first year or first two years of life. But if you actually operate on these kids, you really are giving them a new gift of life because the results are fantastic, they live normal lifespan, and they don’t need multiple surgeries. So you’re investing in the future by investing in these children.”
To find out how you can support the Sai Prema Foundation and the Sri Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Children’s Hospital visit giftoflife.com