Through Healing Hands

God’s miracles often use a doctor’s skill

By Deborah Walker, MD

From the first time I met Claude Alain, an eight-year-old patient I have been following for several years, his sparkling eyes, sense of humor and maturity were striking. He quickly became special to all who met him.

Claude Alain was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a heart malformation that allows blood from both sides of the heart to mix freely, resulting in low blood oxygen levels, fatigue and slowed growth. Each time Claude Alain contracted a minor illness he would become severely short of breath and need hospitalization. For years, I prayed for Claude Alain to be able to have the surgery that would allow him to live a normal life.

In March 2012, my prayers were answered; the Mayo Clinic accepted Claude Alain for heart surgery. Everything was going according to plan—the airfare had come in through donations, the passports had been obtained, travel vaccinations had been done and the U.S. visas were being processed. But one month before he was to travel, Claude Alain began to have severe headaches and had a couple of seizures. A scan in Libreville showed that he had developed a brain abscess, a known complication of this kind of defect because bacteria can cross from the right side of the heart to the left side and then go to the brain. His infection had come from a tooth abscess.

Claude Alain clung to life in a Libreville hospital for six weeks, receiving intravenous antibiotics and medication to control his seizures. At one point, he couldn’t eat or even sit up, barely being able to say “Bonjour, Docteur” when I called to see how he was doing. I didn’t think he could survive, but along with his family and many others, I continued to ask for a miracle. God answered our prayers; Claude Alain’s fevers and seizures stopped, and he began to regain his strength.

After he had been seizure-free for six months, I resubmitted his case to Mayo Clinic. Praise the Lord! From the many requests for heart surgery Mayo Clinic receives each year from around the world, they accepted Claude Alain not once but twice. In addition to having a complete cardiac work-up and heart surgery, he was also scheduled for a neurological examination.

After a 30-hour (but uncomplicated) trip from Bongolo to Minneapolis, Minnesota, we were met at the airport by Dr. Ron Johannsen and Colie Lofgren, a former nurse at Bongolo Hospital who has volunteered as a translator for all our patients who have been accepted at Mayo Clinic. They drove us to Rochester, where our host family, Dr. Phil and Juli Fischer, gave us a warm welcome.

The next three days were filled with lab tests, x-rays, an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram and a computed tomography (CT) scan of Claude Alain’s head; there also were appointments with the infectious disease specialist, the pediatric cardiologist, the cardiac surgeon and the pediatric neurologist. Claude Alain was interested in every detail and was a good patient—as long as needles weren’t involved.

The day of surgery, Claude Alain’s mom and I were able to be with him in the OR until he was asleep. When he saw an IV bag hanging by the table, he assumed a needle wasn’t far away, so he latched onto the bed rails with a death grip. No amount of talking or finger prying convinced him to let go. I asked if they could let him breathe some anesthetic through the mask, even though he was sitting up and in the wrong bed. After a few breaths in the mask, he realized something was wrong and began blowing into the mask and then turning his head to the side to take a deep breath of fresh air instead of the anesthetic. This boy is strong and smart. Finally, they were able to keep the mask on his face long enough for us to scoot him over to the OR table.

Claude Alain’s mom, Colie and I headed to the family waiting area where the Fischers joined us. Dr. Cabalka, the pediatric cardiologist who had accepted Claude Alain for surgery and who had made all this possible, stopped by as well. What an amazing team God put together for this one little boy!

The surgery began at 12:16, and at 4:30, they told us they were closing. Before they began, they thought they might not be able to preserve the pulmonary valve, which would leave him with a backflow of blood into his heart and the possibility of another surgery 10 or 20 years down the road. That would be very problematic for someone from Gabon. Through a transesophageal echo in the OR, they found that the pulmonary valve could be saved. The surgeon said that he was able to close all the holes and that the pressures in the heart chambers were normal.

Afterward, we were able to be with him in ICU. His vital signs were stable, and he woke up sooner than expected. They were able to extubate him around 10:30 p.m. What a joy it was to see his blood-oxygen meter reading 100 percent and to marvel at his pink fingernails, which had been blue just a few hours earlier. Truly a miracle!

Shortly after my return to Bongolo Hospital from home assignment, Claude Alain and his mother arrived for his four-month post-op check-up. I was thrilled to see him run across the compound to greet me. He had gained five pounds and proudly informed me that he could play an entire game of soccer without having to rest or squat to catch his breath. He is once again first in his class at school, despite his brain abscess last year and cardiac surgery this year.

Claude Alain’s future looks bright, and he and his parents give God all the glory. They are thankful for Mayo Clinic and all who gave toward the airfare so they could have this opportunity, as well as for the hundreds of people who prayed for Claude Alain. As we prayed, each step of the way, we saw God open door after door to make this surgery a reality. Upon his return to Gabon, all his friends and family as well as the members of his church marveled at what God had done. Please continue to pray that Claude Alain will follow the Lord all his life and that he will remain healthy.

During the past 18 years, I have been privileged to send five children to the United States for heart surgeries that are not available in Gabon. The visas, airfare and other expenses were paid for by your donations to the Bongolo Heart Send Project, an approved special through the C&MA.

Binta and Grace, two little girls who also had cardiac surgery at Mayo Clinic (in 2007 and 2011, respectively), had routine appointments with me as well. Both girls are in perfect health and enjoying school and life without any limitations. These children were suffering and not growing normally before their operations, and they probably would not have survived to adulthood without God opening the doors for them to receive heart surgery. Seeing all three of these children in the first week after my return from home assignment reminded me once again of how privileged I am to be able to serve as a pediatrician with the C&MA.

When I was an MK here in Gabon, I saw many children dying of preventable or treatable diseases such as pneumonia, measles and tetanus, merely because they didn’t have the medications or vaccinations. As a child, I became interested in medicine and had a desire to help people, either as a nurse or a doctor. Initially, I didn’t think I wanted to serve in medical missions and figured I would work and live in the United States when I grew up.

During a week of special chapel meetings at my high school, Ivory Coast Academy, the speaker challenged us about whether we were willing to answer God’s call to go where the need was greatest and the workers were few, even if it wasn’t easy. I felt God calling me to share His love through medical missions, and I said yes. After college, medical school and pediatric residency in Michigan, I returned to Gabon in 1988 and have been working at Bongolo Hospital ever since.
None of this would have been possible without your giving to the Great Commission Fund, which has allowed me to be here for the past quarter of a century, or without your prayer support for the team and the work here at Bongolo Hospital. Thanks to you, these children, as well as many others, have a “future and a hope.”

Dr. Deborah Walker is the pediatrician at Bongolo Hospital in Gabon.

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The prayers of the Alliance family allow Alliance workers to live and serve all over the world. Pray with the rest of the Alliance family using our weekly Alliance Prayer requests.


Read this and other articles in the January 15, 2014 online edition of alife magazine.


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