Sisulu’s legacy has a living heartbeat

When liberation hero Walter Sisulu died in 2003 his long-time friend and comrade Nelson Mandela wanted his memorial to extend beyond a statue.

Lynda Bleazard, chief executive of Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa, says Madiba wanted a living legacy to the man and his life.

At that time, doctors at Netcare’s Sunninghill Hospital were working in a 10-bed intensive care unit and paediatric cardiac surgery was limited to private patients. Children with heart problems on the rest of the African continent and poorer patients in the country had no access to these facilities.

“The idea of creating the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Centre for Africa was born out of the need to provide care for children in South Africa and Africa. Every child whose heart is repaired here can go out into the world as a living tribute to Walter Sisulu,” Bleazard says.

“The Sisulu family was in mourning at the time but felt that the centre would be a wonderful gesture.”

As this year’s winner in the NGO category, the centre raises funds and picks up the cost of the expensive surgery to assist public sector patients who might otherwise not be able to afford treatment.

The cardiac team came to the party and cut prices to 33% below medical scheme rates.

In addition Netcare’s hospital provides its facilities at 20% lower than medical scheme rates.

“The discounts mean that the centre can fund surgery for an average cost of about R140 000, compared with R250 000 for a usual procedure,” Bleazard says.

Demand in South Africa is so high that the centre struggles to cope with the domestic need, she says. As a result, the centre has not actively marketed in Africa.

But the news has travelled throughout the continent’s medical grapevine. Since the centre was established in 2003, it has given 223 patients much-needed corrective open-heart surgery and 22 of these patients had complex heart conditions that necessitated more than one operation.

“About 70% of our patients are from South Africa and the balance has come to us from elsewhere in Africa, including patients from Algeria, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique,” says Bleazard.

Although the centre has broken all its previous records and helped 75 children so far this year, Bleazard says this barely scratches the surface of the number of children who need surgery.

The facilities at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital have grown from a 10- bed paediatric cardiac ICU to one with 16 beds.
If the centre could raise money for 300 sponsored children, they could be treated over and above the 500 cardiac children who are already receive treatment a year.

“There is more than enough demand but we simply do not have enough money to help all the children,” says Bleazard.

The centre has an effective marketing strategy in place and the word has spread throughout South Africa. Its platinum sponsors include Netcare, the Absa Foundation and Barclays International and the Vodacom Foundation, among others.

“South Africa’s pharmaceutical companies have also come to the party as we use their consumables. Donating these is often easier for them,” says Bleazard.

But she points out that the centre is one of 98 000 charities competing in the same donor pool and local donations are simply insufficient to meet the need.

As a result, it is now widening its fundraising net to the international arena.

“In 2005 we established a legal entity in New York, US, so that caring Americans can help the children and receive a tax write-off for their generosity.

“This has worked well and we have been able to raise R800 000.Most of this has come from pharmaceutical companies operating in South Africa parent companies of which are based in the US,” Bleazard says.

Many of the offshore donors are keen to assist in education and training, which fits in well with the centre’s second objective of bringing doctors from all over the world to Africa.

The idea is that a heart surgeon will come to South Africa for additional training in paediatric cardiac surgery. When his or her training is completed the newly trained doctors will return to their own countries in Africa and empower their own communities.

“If we want to duplicate the facilities we have in South Africa we are going to have to train doctors from other African countries so that they can return to their countries.”

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Andrew Gillingham
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