No child left behind: Healing Hearts Vietnam

Lynchburg physicians answer the call to provide cardiac surgeries, provider training in Vietnam

Across Vietnam, thousands of children die of congenital heart disease every year because families cannot afford to pay for their portion of the required surgery, which often amounts to around $700.

Tom Forsberg, MD, FACEP trains providers in Vietnam to use a Tom Forsberg, MD, FACEP.

The average monthly wage in Vietnam is $180.

Out of a faithful base in Lynchburg, Healing Hearts Vietnam has supported 233 cardiac surgeries in the Southeast Asian country during the past two years – most in children. The physicians of Healing Hearts Vietnam work with the largest private hospital system in Vietnam, Hoan My Medical Corp., overseeing its surgeons and procedures and reviewing quality data to assure the surgeries performed are high quality. If done properly, congenital heart disease treatment is a one-time intervention, often minimally invasive, and doesn’t require continual ongoing care.

“What these surgeries do is transform a family,” says Tom Forsberg, MD, FACEP, the co-founder of Healing Hearts Vietnam and Medical Director of Emergency Services at Centra Health. “Suddenly you have a child who has had trouble walking or breathing who is able to go to school, go outside and play, and their one stay-at-home parent is able to go back to work and create additional income for the family.”

In 2007, Centra cardiologist Chad Hoyt, M.D. began traveling to Vietnam to train other physicians, beginning with rural outreach clinics in the Mekong Delta and ultimately expanding to formal lecturing at Nguyen Trai Hospital and Hoan My Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. During Dr. Hoyt’s eight visits to Vietnam, he became aware of the need for cardiac surgery for impoverished children through contacts he had made. He got Forsberg involved in 2013, and two years later Healing Hearts was formalized when the Lynchburg faith community stepped up.

During Christmas 2015, two Lynchburg Baptist churches – Timberlake and Heritage – raised $91,000 to support 100 heart surgeries in Vietnam. “That first year I went, I immediately saw the impact of our work,” Forsberg says. “I visited a child that was going to get the surgery and saw hope in his eyes – and in his parents, too.”

Chad Hoyt, MD, with a patient in Vietnam.

Healing Hearts became a humanitarian ministry of Heritage, operating under its 501(c)3 status. Funds raised go entirely to the surgeries; physicians make one mission trip a year, and travel on their own dime. The group has raised north of $220,000.

“We want every penny to go to the children,” Forsberg says.

The next trip is planned for January, and the two-week visit will be a busy one. There are surgeries, lectures and clinics planned, but also coffees: building relationships is a key part of the program to help build awareness of its mission across the country.

Accompanied by a Hoan My executive as their translator, the Americans spend time training Vietnamese physicians and nursing staff. Forsberg recalls years ago visiting a hospital with an ill-equipped 20×20 resuscitation bay, but it had no stretcher, airway management, medication or other key supplies. “So we guided them on how to properly set up a resuscitation bay,” he says.

For the 2018 visit, Healing Hearts was asked by the most prestigious and largest surgical center in Vietnam, Viet Duc Hospital, to hold a cardiac conference in Hanoi. C. Michael Valentine M.D., incoming national president of the American College of Cardiology and an interventional cardiologist at Centra Health, will be one of the featured speakers.

Forsberg will stay behind for an additional week and head to a Hoan My hospital in Da Nang, where he will teach pediatric airway management. Four home visits with children that have received past surgeries are also planned.

Technology vendors have stepped up to the plate, too, donating more than $400,000 worth of equipment. In the early years of Dr. Hoyt’s visits, Phillips Corp. gave costly ultrasound devices and provided hands-on training for the cardiologists of Nguyen Trai Hospital, who, under the cardiologist’s guidance, mastered the skill of performing transesophageal echocardiography. Verathon donated GlideScope video laryngoscopes to help increase the success rate with intubations, and Forsberg taught providers how to use them. GE has also donated portable ultrasound machines the size of mobile phones to identify patients in need of life-saving surgery.

The goal is to make Healing Hearts Vietnam not a once-a-year-trip, but a year-round service for those in need.

“We want to make this an ongoing effort, and we want our programs and work to replicate across the country,” says Forsberg, who also uses the program to teach his own young daughters, Olivia and Emma, the importance of helping others. “We can train teachers to teach others, who can then teach others, and create an impact long after we leave. And we will continue to raise support and funds in U.S. to fund these kids who won’t be able to get surgery otherwise. It has been a great success story.”

LIKE THIS STORY? TELL YOURS. Reach out to to share the great work you or your colleagues in emergency medicine are doing.