Open Heart is part of HBO’s Fall Documentary Series and reveals the epidemic of cardiovascular disease among Africa’s children and the people saving their lives, one surgery at a time. The film was directed by Kief Davidson and produced by Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern.
When most people think of heart disease, they think of overindulgence of fatty foods, lack of exercise and an unhealthy lifestyle. But in Africa, heart disease is caused by treatable illnesses, some as common as strep throat. In America, strep throat is easily treated with penicillin, but that rarely happens in Africa. Because many Africans do not have access to healthcare, 13 million children and teenagers have been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease, an extremely life-threatening form that has a very high mortality rate if open heart surgery is not performed. But there is hope for Africa’s children thanks to the charitable organization Emergency, founded by Italian surgeon Gino Strada.
Dr. Strada founded his organization based on the fundamental notion that “the right to receive proper health care is a universal right.” His vision led to the opening of the Salam Centre in Sudan, a state-of-the-art, free of charge cardiovascular surgery center that treats people with rheumatic and other heart diseases. The Centre is the only cardiovascular hospital in Africa, and many patients come from all over to be treated. In Open Heart, viewers followed 8 children from Rwanda, aged 3 to 19 years old, as they traveled to the Salam Centre for life-saving open heart surgery.
The film opens with Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, Rwanda’s one of only two pediatric cardiologists, explaining to a concerned father what could happen if his daughter is sent to the Salam Centre for surgery. The father is pensive and very quiet as he listened, but in the end, he agreed to the surgery if it meant saving his daughter’s life. Dr. Rusingiza chose the children he thought needed the surgery the most, which he said is very difficult to do. He sees many sick children at the public hospital where he works, and the decisions he makes for his patients weighed heavily on his mind. Dr. Rusingiza chose Marie (17), Francine (19), Claire (14), Joas (18), Dorianne (12), Louise (11), and the littlest patients, Angelique (6) and Bruno (3). These brave children traveled to a strange country without their parents (who had to stay behind due to expenses) and endured a surgery that scares even the bravest adult. It was overwhelming to watch doctors, nurses, counselors and other Salam Centre staff treat these children like their own, making sure they were fed, rested and most of all, felt safe.
Open Heart is one of those films that reminded me how lucky I am to have access to healthcare. Although I’ve never had strep throat, I have had other illnesses as a child that were easily treated by antibiotics. Knowing that there are millions of children dying from common ailments is frightening. But people like Drs. Rusingiza and Strada are fighting for these children everyday, which was especially evident when Dr. Strada met with the Sudanese President Hassan al-Bashir to request additional funding for the Centre. Dr. Strada was adamant about keeping the hospital as one that treats patients free of charge and not a place only for the rich. I was also struck by the level of care and attention Dr. Rusingiza gave to the children as they journeyed to Sudan. In the film, he expressed the desire that more be done to focus on cardiovascular health in Africa, which is all but nonexistent. But it was the children of Open Heart who were the main heroes of this film. Although sick, far from home and afraid, these amazing kids faced their surgeries head-on, while giving each other the love and support they needed to make it through.
Open Heart is currently airing on HBO, HBO2, HBO On Demand and HBO GO.
Photos courtesy of HBO.