A major gift from Rita Bigham will enable UNC interventional cardiologists to perform more life-saving heart procedures in Nicaragua.
Retired elementary school teacher Rita Bigham has always held a special place in her heart for young people. When she learned about Maryam, an eight-year-old girl in Afghanistan who needed open heart surgery, she and her husband Eric established a fund through The Medical Foundation of North Carolina to pay for it at UNC Hospitals.
In 2013, UNC pediatric cardiologist Elman Frantz, MD, identified Maryam’s heart defect, and Michael Mill, MD, corrected the narrowing of her aorta, closing a fetal blood vessel that had not closed when she was a newborn. Left untreated, it would have eventually led to heart failure. After that, Bigham continued to work through Solace for the Children, to bring children from war torn countries to the US for specialized medical care.
“I was so drawn to these children in need when I first saw them. I realized how fortunate our children are in the US, and decided to do everything I could to help provide medical care for children in third world countries.”
Mending the Hearts of Children in Nicaragua
Now, Bigham is turning toward a growing effort to serve children in Nicaragua. A lack of adequate of health care professionals and facilities leave many children, and adults, who have treatable heart conditions, without the medical care they desperately need.
In 2015, a group of UNC cardiologists led by Michael Yeung, MD, teamed with Project Health for Leon (PHL) to pioneer minimally invasive structural interventions for patients with heart disease in Leon, Nicaragua. PHL has been providing cardiovascular services in that area of Nicaragua for more than 30 years. Patients who would have died from valvular or congenital heart disease were able to get surgery in Leon by teams sent by PHL. Unfortunately, the need was so great that the UNC surgical team, in its annual one-week visit, could only make a small dent in a waiting list that exceeded 100 patients.
Yeung and an entire team of healthcare providers from UNC (including Lucius Howell, MD, John Vavalle, MD, Elman Frantz, MD, Alan Hinderliter, MD, Zehra Husain, MD, Josh Vega, MD, David Tate, MD, Rick Hobbs, MD, Sylvia Becker-Dreps, MD, MPH, Charlene Wayne, RN, Roman Baczara, RN, Ashley Smith, RN, Caroline Robinson, RN, Cecile Noel, PA, Ruben Centeno, Ron Wofford, and Brian Frerking) have joined in the medical missions with PHL to care for this underserved population.
The UNC group has expanded the number of patients that can be treated with minimally invasive treatments including mitral valvuloplasty, pulmonary valvuloplasty, and atrial septal defect closure and patent ductus closures. Yeung says these procedures result in remarkable improvements in patient symptoms without the risk associated with open-heart surgery, and patients are often discharged the next day. UNC’s contingent makes two trips a year to Leon in order to serve as many patients as possible.
A Gift to Expand Cardiac Care
Wanting to see this effort do more, the Bighams have provided a major gift for the mission which will help UNC interventional cardiologists perform more life-saving heart procedures, in a place that has no heart surgeons, and not enough cardiologists to care for country’s medical needs. Bigham says the humanitarian work combines her passion for children and a health condition she know a lot about.
“Cardiology is so important to me because my family has a history of heart disease at an early age. I also know that it’s the number one killer of women,” said Bigham, who is a patient of Dr. Rick Stouffer.
Bigham is a dedicated hospital volunteer, along with her husband Eric, and their dog Pippa who has been a therapy dog at UNC Hospitals for over 12 years.
“We live in an area where we can receive wonderful medical care. In places like Nicaragua and Afghanistan, this will never be possible. Families do not even have enough money for food and clothing. They certainly can’t afford medical care.”
The gift will be used to purchase the expensive equipment and supplies required for complex minimally invasive procedures and provide travel expenses for cardiology fellows and other trainees.
“With the infrastructure and relationships already in place through Project Health Leon, we can be very efficient stewards of these funds for maximum benefit to the Nicaraguan patients in need. We are thankful to Rita for her tremendous kindness.” said Yeung.
Rick Stouffer, MD, chief of cardiology, and Ernest and Hazel Craige Distinguished Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine added, “Rita Bigham has provided a most generous gift to help us provide care for those in need in Nicaragua, and we greatly appreciate it. This gift will go a long way toward helping us create a sustainable global health initiative.”