Rheumatic heart disease was once a leading cause of death among children in the United States until the mid-20th century. The emergence of penicillin, an antibiotic essential to the disease’s prevention, changed that. But rheumatic heart disease is still a prominent killer among children in developing countries.
In Rwanda, there are only two pediatric cardiologists in the entire country to treat the many children with rheumatic heart disease, which permanently damages the heart valves and often occurs when strep throat goes untreated. The office of one of these two doctors, Emmanuel Rusingiza, is where filmmaker Kief Davidson found the inspiration for his short, Open Heart.
“There were about 60 children in his waiting room, and all of them were suffering from rheumatic heart disease, all in various stages,” Davidson said of his October 2011 visit to Rusingiza’s office while working on another documentary. “The idea for the film started when I asked him what the options were for these children.”
In a country with few doctors and limited medical resources, the options are few. Previously, an Australian cardiac team had traveled to the mid-Africa country once a year to perform a dozen surgeries on children with rheumatic heart disease. But when the group canceled the trip in 2011, the next place to turn to was a far-away, state-of-the-art cardiac facility: the Salam Center in Soba, Sudan, run by non-profit organization Emergency, where patients can receive treatment at no cost aside from their airfare to get there. Davidson documented the journey of eight Rwandan children to the Salam Center, where they received open heart surgery.
Davidson saw the eight children grow close as they became like a family during the nearly two months away from home without their parents (who stayed in Rwanda to keep travel costs down). He also saw a major transformation in them after their surgeries.
“When we were first filming, the kids were very, very sick. We didn’t do any interviews with the children initially. They were just too sick for that,” Davidson said. “We really didn’t see their personalities shine until a few days after the surgery. It was amazing for us to see these very lethargic children all of the sudden turn to very energetic, funny, interesting people.”
The director has continued his efforts to help rheumatic heart disease patients in Rwanda. His production company has teamed up with Boston-based Team Heart to aid Rusingiza’s other patients in need of surgery who were not selected for the trip to Sudan. That collaboration also led to Philips donating one of their echo cardio machines to Rusingiza. In April, he and Team Heart will take the portable machine to a remote Rwandan village to do a pre-screening for early stages of rheumatic heart disease for an expected 1,000-plus people.
“Part of reason for me wanting to make this film initially just came from place of partial anger and sadness at the same time that all these children were suffering from a completely preventable disease, that if they had penicillin, they wouldn’t be in this position to begin with,” Davidson said. “The best thing that could happen with the Academy Award nomination, and hopefully a win, is more and more people know about this, and it’ll be more likely there’s going to be some change.”
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