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One Year After Haiti Devastation, Doctors To Perform Life-Saving Surgery

Tue, 01/11/2011 - 5:52am

The devastating earthquakes that struck Haiti last January saved at least one life – that of Lovely Ajuste, a Port-au-Prince teen.  Ms. Ajuste sought treatment for a severe cough and shortness of breath in the days following the disaster that has left her homeless. Mahalia Desruisseaux, M.D., assistant professor of pathology and of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University who had traveled to Haiti to assist in the relief effort, identified a serious heart condition.  Now, one year later, Ms. Ajuste will undergo open-heart surgery at Montefiore, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Einstein, to correct the defect. 

Dr. Desruisseaux, a native of Haiti, returned to the Caribbean nation for the first time in 24 years as a volunteer at a private hospital in the Sacre Coeur region of Port-au-Prince after the earthquakes struck.  Along with the numerous patients she helped treat for severe wound infections, broken bones, dehydration, and even typhoid, Dr. Desruisseaux met Ms. Ajuste.

"When I met Lovely, she had a severe cough and shortness of breath – which she thought was due to the dust in the air and living outside in crowded conditions," said Dr. Desruisseaux. "After taking an x-ray, I noticed that she had an enlarged heart and vascular congestion, so I asked for a cardiac specialist to further examine her."

That decision may have saved Ms. Ajuste's life. She was subsequently diagnosed with a congenital heart condition called an atrial septal defect (ASD).

"Lovely has a large hole in between the two upper chambers of her heart," explained Samuel Weinstein, M.D., director of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Montefiore and associate professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Einstein, who will be performing Ms. Ajuste's operation. "This causes her right heart to be stressed, causing an inability to function normally."  Left untreated, ASD can permanently damage the heart and may lead to a shortened life span. 

"The procedure needed to repair this defect would be difficult, if not impossible, to have performed in Haiti right now, but it is routine in the United States," continued Dr. Weinstein. "Following surgery, her life expectancy should be near normal."

"Without the needed surgical intervention, Lovely would continue to be severely limited in her day-to-day activities and in her ability to function normally, which is why I was desperate to bring her to the U.S.," said Dr. Desruisseaux. She worked with her colleagues at Einstein and Montefiore to connect Ms. Ajuste with Gift of Life International, which is sponsoring her trip to New York.

While Ms. Ajuste undergoes preliminary testing, she will stay at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island in New Hyde Park.  She will also recuperate from the surgery there following an estimated 10-day stay at Montefiore after what is generally a three- to five-hour surgery. If all goes as scheduled, she will return to Port-au-Prince in early February. Air travel for Ms. Ajuste and her mother were provided by American Airlines' Miles for Kids program and Airline Ambassadors International. Upon their return, they will continue to seek permanent housing.

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