'Open Heart' Follows Plight Of Ill African Children

Rheumatic heart disease, the No. 1 killer of American children a hundred years ago, is largely gone in this country now. But it's still wreaking havoc in Africa despite the fact it's preventable with antibiotics. Filmmaker Kief Davidson, in his film Open Heart, tells the story of eight Rwandan children who need life-saving cardiac surgery, and the one hospital that can help them. Audie Cornish speaks with Davidson about his Oscar-nominated short documentary.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Here in the U.S., antibiotics mean that almost no one dies of rheumatic heart disease but in Africa, it's still a killer. Millions of Africans have the disease which stems from untreated strep throat. And that's left doctors, like Emmanuel Rusingiza of Rwanda, completed frustrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OPEN HEART")

DR. EMMANUEL RUSINGIZA: If we see a person dying because it's too late to do surgery or because it's not possible, it's very hard for me; especially when you know that something could be done to save the patient.

BLOCK: Film director Kief Davidson hopes his Oscar-nominated short documentary, "Open Heart," will raise awareness. In the film, he follows eight Rwandan children who desperately need life-saving heart surgery.

And as he tells my co-host Audie Cornish, the children's only hope is the Salam Center - a free of charge, state of the art cardiac hospital in Sudan.

KIEF DAVIDSON: I didn't know anything about the Salam Center in Sudan. It's run by an Italian organization called Emergency. It wasn't until I was actually in Rwanda pursuing this story about rheumatic heart disease I met Dr. Emmanuel, who's one of two pediatric cardiologists in the whole country. And he had a very long waiting list of children who needed heart surgery. And he said that their only option was to somehow get from Rwanda to Sudan.

It wasn't until I actually physically stepped foot in Sudan that I truly understood just the medical marvel that this place was. It's a $15 million hospital that's been built by this Italian organization. And they chose Sudan because Sudan is basically the only country in Africa that's surrounded by nine neighbors. It's the most easily accessible point for patients to get there.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And, as you mentioned this Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, tell us a little bit about him.

DAVIDSON: Well, Rwanda actually has a very good health care system. It's actually considered now one of the best in Africa. However, there's still very much a big problem with rheumatic heart disease, so there's only two pediatric cardiologists in the whole country. And Emmanuel handles all the public hospitals. He is a very passionate Doctor that's very overwhelmed.

When I first met Dr. Emmanuel, there were at least 60 to 70 children sitting outside of his office that all had rheumatic heart disease. And, you know, quite frankly, I was outraged by it. It's such a preventable disease. And that was the genesis of the film, it came from a place of sadness and anger that this was still happening there.

CORNISH: And just give us a sense of scale, just how many children are affected by this. Because rheumatic heart disease, this was a disease that in America, you know, we were dealing with 100 years ago.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, a hundred years ago it was the number one killer of children in the United States. Now it's virtually zero. It's estimated in Africa that there's 18 million people that are suffering from this disease.

CORNISH: There're so many characters in this film that I wanted to kind of follow off, you know, out of the frame and find out what happens to them, especially the children. There's about eight of them. Describe what these children are facing with this heart illness.

DAVIDSON: Well, it's different for different cases. The disease sometimes attacks very aggressively and very quickly. But in other cases, it takes many, many years before they come to sort of an end of term. What I have found, these particular children - if they did not get surgery right away, they would die. And one of the most difficult things for me was meeting some of these kids that Dr. Emmanuel said, well, they can't go to Sudan because it's too late for them.

You know, these eight were really the lucky few out of the, I think, there were 60 at that time on the critical list.

CORNISH: Can I ask what's happened to some of the kids since?

DAVIDSON: I was very convinced that at least one of them if not more would die on this trip. It was a very difficult emotional journey. You know, I found myself trying, like, many times to emotionally disconnect from the kids because they could die. But it was really impossible.

Actually for them, they did have a very happy ending. They survived it. They've passed the critical stage, which was six months post-surgery, smooth sailing. So we're very, very happy for all of them.

CORNISH: As you've been trying to draw attention to this disease, what is being done? What are the advances being made that could make a difference here?

DAVIDSON: Well, something remarkable just happened about a month ago. We had contacted Philips, the technology organization, and we partnered with another organization called Team Heart, which is a Boston-based organization that does surgery work in Rwanda, and basically got Philips to donate a portable echocardio machine.

So, this to me was actually a good example of actually tackling this from a preventative standpoint. Dr. Emmanuel and Team Heart will use this machine, go into the field and do preventative screenings on over a thousand people to detect early rheumatic heart disease. So that's one example.

But I think another great example that just happened was we received an email from the Minister of Health of Rwanda, who saw the film. And she was so moved by it that she claims now that she's going to make this a national priority for Rwanda, to combat rheumatic heart disease. And Rwanda has done an incredible job with AIDS and tuberculosis and malaria. So if they do actually put the resources into combating rheumatic heart disease, it could be an enormous accomplishment.

CORNISH: Kief Davidson, he's the producer and director of the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Open Heart."

Kief, thank you for speaking with us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Kief Davidson was talking with my co-host Audie Cornish, as part of our series on the documentary short films nominated for an Oscar this year.

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