For 'Heart Week,' cardiac experts fly in to take care of isle kids

For 'Heart Week,' cardiac experts fly in to take care of isle kids
(Image: Sheldon Kaeo)
(Image: Sheldon Kaeo)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's difficult for any parent when a child is sick, let alone, if your kid needs open heart surgery.

But that's what Milika'a Kaeo's parents have been preparing for since the 18-month-old was in the womb.

"The struggle is probably the hardest a mommy has to face," said mother Sharla Kaeo. "Just feeling helpless and she's not knowing what's going on."

"Getting to the hospital, knowing what's about to happen," added her husband, Sheldon Kaeo.

Milika'a's operation was a success and the Kaeos feel fortunate they were able to have her surgery at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, rather than in a mainland hospital.

The surgery could be performed in the islands thanks to a unique partnership called "Heart Week."

Five times a year, cardiac experts from California fly in to perform surgeries on local children in need.

The program started as a partnership between Kapi'olani and Rady Children's Hospital of San Diego more than 20 years ago. Since then, surgeons have performed nearly 1,300 operations.

"Being from Hawaii and our family is here and everything that we hold near and dear to our heart is here," Sharla Kaeo said. "It was a blessing to be able to have it here because we had the support of my family, my friends, my extended family, my church."

Dr. John Lamberti, the chief of Cardiac Surgery at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, said heart week ensures patients in the islands get high-quality care in their home.

It's not just a financial hardship when local families have to travel to the mainland. Getting the care they need at home means they don't have to navigate a new hospital or medical team.

"They're familiar with everybody. We're a big family here. All the connections are made," said Dr. Carlos Moreno, director of the Pediatric Cardiac Program at Kapi'olani Medical Center. "They don't have to do anything special. They just follow the routine."

The next closest children's hospital is 2,500 miles away. Rather than forcing sick kids and their families to travel there, three cardiac experts fly to Hawaii for a full week of operations.

"They're very kind," Moreno said. "They take time from their schedule and we have a very good relationship. They're available at any time, I can consult them whenever I need."

Lamberti added, "We can provide the same quality of service that is available on the mainland because we bring the expertise that comes with the volume and experience and then we work with people here."

The Kaeos say being able to have Milika'a treated at home provided peace of mind money couldn't buy.

"She is a testimony to others of what 'Heart Week' is all about," said Sharla, explaining that she and her husband were happy to share their experience in hopes that "maybe it will be able to give other people the strength and courage to believe that miracles do happen."

The Kaeos say Milika'a will now have a greater quality of life -- with much more energy to spare.

"All this time we thought she was running at full speed, but she was only running at half speed," her father said with a laugh.

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