Matters of the heart
Cheeko B. Ruiz (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2013 - 12:00am

During this month of hearts, lovers rush to buy the most romantic gifts – flowers, chocolates, jewellery – but since 1974, Rotary International has been giving a far more heart-warming gift to young children who need it the most – the Gift of Life.

Congenital heart defect (CHD), a disease said to be the most common type of birth defect, is a problem with the structure of the heart. It is known to cause more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defect.

Recognizing the threat posed by CHD, Rotary International embarked on the Gift of Life (GOL) program, aimed at saving children afflicted with the disease.

The program began 38 years ago, in 1974, in Long Island, New York, when Robbie Donno, one of the members of a Rotary Club in the district, was asked to help a child in Uganda who had a CHD.

The child, then five-year-old Grace Agwaru, needed to undergo an open-heart surgical procedure to close a small hall between the two chambers of her heart. At that time, such operation could only be done in the United States.

By November of the same year, Grace successfully went through the surgical procedure, prompting what began as a single mission of one club to save one child through a life-saving heart surgery, to develop into a dynamic worldwide Rotary International service program. Today, thousands of Rotarians in around 70 countries across the globe, including the Philippines, are involved in the GOL program.

According to Lou del Rosario, director of the Gift of Life International (GOLI), the recipients of their GOL program are referred to them by Rotarians from all over the world. They also screen recommendations from various hospitals. In the United States, about $7,500 is spent per surgery while in the Philippines it costs around P123,000, Lou says.

Since its establishment in 1974, the GOL program has helped 15,000 kids from 68 countries in five continents.

Lou laments though about the low level of awareness on the GOL program, saying that they hope the public would learn more about their endeavor so that more children can be helped in the process. In the Philippines, Lou says over 3,000 kids need this operation.

The GOL program was introduced to the Rotary Club of Makati West (RCMW) by Del Rosario, who shared about the joy and blessings he and his family derive from the project. Then incoming RCMW president Larry Ocampo and his father, past president Adrian Ocampo, rose to the challenge and set up the program in the Philippines. Since 2005, RCMW has accomplished over 240 surgeries. The program receives an average of two requests per week.

The parents of the children who wish to apply for the GOL program are requested to submit a social case study report from their own Community Social Welfare Office to determine the family’s financial capacity. RCMW members then find and negotiate with partner hospitals on the type of operation needed and operation costs for the qualified beneficiary.

RCMW has seven partner hospitals – Makati Medical Center, Asian Hospital and Medical Center, Philippine General Hospital, Philippine Heart Center, National Children’s Hospital, St. Luke’s Medical Center, and Iloilo Doctors Hospital.

Del Rosario says those who would like to support the mission may donate to Gift of Life International or to the Rotary Club Gift of Life.

“Rotarians, doctors and nurses do the operation pro bono, while the funds used in the operation are from donations and fundraisers usually matched by the Rotary Foundation,” Lou says.

“After the operation, the kids are monitored,” says Lou, adding that they regularly get updates from the recipients.

Lou recounts some memorable experiences in the course of his stint as GOLI director, among them hosting a kid with steroid psychosis. The child ironically got the disorder after having been prescribed with steroids to control his asthma.

“This was 12 years ago. Last September, during our trip for Gift of Life to Cebu, we met up with the said recipient. He is now a young man, about to finish collage majoring in hotel management. He and his mom were very thankful for the gift of life that he had received,” Lou shares.

After countless donations, operations and sacrifices, Del Rosario still has not stopped dreaming.

“My goal as director of GOLI is to give hope to every parent that their child who is born with a congenital heart problem has a chance to be saved,” he says. “Seeing the joy in the faces of parents because of the transformation of their children to being normal, healthy kids is priceless.”

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