UVM doctor leads Rwanda mission

By  | 

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Sixteen heart patients in Africa will now live a longer life thanks to a team of doctors, including a lead surgeon from the UVM Medical Center.

For a cardiac surgeon who's operated on thousands of people in his 30 years of practice, a little boy like Prodius stands out to Dr. Bruce Leavitt.

"Patients like Prodius are the reason we go because he's going to live a long life," Dr. Leavitt said.

Prodius, 16, along with millions of other young people in Africa, is suffering from heart valve scarring.

"We go to Africa to meet an unmet need to operate on young people with rheumatic heart disease who otherwise would die," Leavitt said.

The disease is caused by strep throat, but it doesn't exist in the U.S. That's because U.S. doctors prescribe medicine with penicillin when you get strep throat to stop the bacteria from spreading. Unfortunately, that's not the case in East Africa.

"There are few doctors and people don't see doctors. If they get two or three bouts of strep throat, they get the disease," said Leavitt.

A team of 41 medical professionals, including 10 from UVM, are part of Team Heart, a nonprofit focused on bringing cardiac care to people in Rwanda. Leavitt is the lead cardiac surgeon on the team.

"We cut out the scarred heart valve and sew in an artificial heart valve," Leavitt explained.

This is the sixth time Leavitt has made the trip to Africa, and the 11th time UVM has sent people there.

"In medical school did I ever think I'd be in Africa 30 years later operating on 16-year-olds? No," said Leavitt. "It's provided a great career, for sure."

While he feels a connection to every patient he has seen in Vermont, he describes the need in Africa as something special.

"I've been fortunate in my life and have a great career and be able to help people in this hospital, but the ability to go to Africa is really a great thing," Leavitt said.

Looking back through the memories abroad, he says it never gets old.

"I think that's why I became a surgeon," he said. "I look forward to it every year with a labor of love but when you do cases like Prodius you know you went for the right reason."

Besides the volunteer doctors, UVM Medical Center donated the medicine and most of the medical equipment needed for the surgeries. Leavitt says all the patients this year were ages 16 to 31 and are reportedly doing well following their procedures. The team is already scheduled to head back to Rwanda in February 2019.