Thursday, January 27, 2011

Long Beach group seeks heart surgery for boy

The Long Beach-based nonprofit Hearts Without Boundaries hopes to aid Bunlak Song, who suffers from a hole in his heart. The 3-year-old boy lives in poverty in Cambodia.
By Greg Mellen
Long Beach Press Telegram (California, USA)

The news was not good when Dr. Paul Grossfeld looked at the echocardiogram images of the heart of Bunlak Song.

"We found that Bunlak has a very large ventricular septal defect (hole in his heart in the wall separating the ventricles)," Grossfeld wrote in an e-mail from Cambodia about his findings.

That in turn has geared up efforts by a local group to get help for the 3-year-old, who lives in poverty and lacks access to care in his homeland.

Hearts Without Boundaries, a Long Beach nonprofit founded by former NBC producer Peter Chhun, has helped three Cambodian children receive life-extending heart surgeries since 2008.

Although the group had already chosen Bunlak as its next case, Grossfeld's findings have upped the urgency to help the boy.

"When Dr. Grossfeld said `the operation on Bunlak should have been done yesterday,' I knew right away that Bunlak's heart defect is very severe," Chhun said by e-mail from Cambodia, where he is accompanying doctors on a medical mission.

"He is showing signs of damage to his lung arteries as a result of the increased blood flow and pressure to his lungs because of the (ventricular septal defect)," Grossfeld wrote. "He would be a high-risk surgical candidate."

Grossfeld adds, "without surgery, it is very unlikely that he would survive to adulthood."

Bunlak's condition does not come as a complete surprise - it is the size of the hole and the ongoing irreversible lung damage that has raised immediate concern.

When Dr. Luy Lyda of Angkor Hospital for Children initially examined the boy, he noted coarctation, or narrowing, of the aorta, in addition to the hole in the heart.

This has led to a variety of maladies, including hypertension in the lungs and a history of dyspnea, or labored breathing, since birth.

"In the U.S., (Bunlak) would have been operated on to close the hole by age 6 months," Grossfeld wrote. "The window of opportunity for surgical repair is quickly closing on him, and he needs his operation ASAP before the surgery would become too dangerous."

Bunlak's condition is similar to that of Socheat Nha, the most recent patient treated by Hearts Without Boundaries. Initially, Socheat was scheduled to be operated on at a hospital in Las Vegas.

However, doctors deemed the risk too high and canceled surgery. Eventually, Chhun was able to connect with International Children's Heart Foundation, which offered the volunteer services of a doctor who performed the tricky surgery in the Dominican Republic. Hearts Without Boundaries had to pay for use of the hospital and transportation.

Chhun does not yet know whether a U.S. hospital will operate on Bunlak. For this reason, Chhun may make another deal with International Children's Heart Foundation.

However, Hearts Without Boundaries is low on funds, particularly with the unexpected costs that arose with Socheat's surgery.

"I refuse to let Bunlak die," Chhun wrote. "The news hit the HWB team hard. I told everybody, `Let's get to work - raise funds for Bunlak."'

Bunlak was only 2 days old when his homeless mother begged a family visiting the hospital to take her son. By nightfall the mother had left the hospital and her child behind.

Bunlak's adoptive parents, Siv Leng Chuy and Chin Song Hai, scratch out a living selling gas in plastic bottles to taxis, motorcycles and tuk-tuks in their home village of Kampong Popil. But they have taken the boy in and say he has brought them luck.

"But luck will run out if Bunlak's life were not saved," Chhun wrote. "When I told the bad news to his sister who accompanied him to Siem Reap, she said with teary eyes, "Grand Pa, please help save my brother's life. Please!"

Information about Hearts Without Boundaries is available online at heartswithout


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