Local residents help Solana Beach-based nonprofit bring life-saving treatment to children around the world
By Joe Tash
Roughly every 14 days, a crew of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel takes off from the United States to different developing nations around the world, with the purpose of performing life-saving operations on sick children.
The missions are sponsored by Children’s Lifeline International, a Solana Beach-based nonprofit founded in 1982. Randy Woods, a Rancho Santa Fe pharmaceutical executive, has supported the group’s work for a number of years, and he remains a strong advocate.
“I want to try to help these children, who hopefully will have a long life ahead of them, and live productive lives, if they can just fix these (medical) issues,” said Woods. “With this organization, the money people contribute goes to directly helping these children. It saves lives.”
The group’s annual fundraising gala and celebration is set for May 10 at the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego.
Woods had high praise for Salah Hassanein of Solana Beach, a retired movie industry executive, who founded Children’s Lifeline with two friends, and also for the doctors and nurses who volunteer their time and talents on the group’s missions.
According to the group’s web site, in the early 1980s, then First Lady Nancy Reagan appealed to the movie industry to help provide heart surgery for two children she brought to the United States. This inquiry led Hassanein and his friends, Joseph Sinay and Morton Sunshine, to launch Children’s Lifeline.
Hassanein will turn 93 in May, but is still passionate about helping poor children in developing nations receive medical care, Woods said.
“What I so admire about him, even though he struggles to draw a breath and to walk, is he’s so determined to help these children. I hope when I’m his age, I can do half as much,” said Woods, 62.
Woods also tipped his hat to the medical professionals who often use their vacation time to undertake the surgical missions.
In spite of how hard they work at their jobs, he said, “they’re willing to go and work even harder and under more challenging conditions than in the U.S.”
One of those doctors is Paul Grossfeld, a friend of Woods’ and resident of Carmel Valley. Grossfeld is a pediatric cardiologist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and has been participating in annual medical missions to a children’s hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for the past eight years.
The physicians perform a procedure to correct a congenital heart defect — related to a blood vessel that does not close properly after birth — which leads to a high mortality rate, said Grossfeld. They have also taught doctors and nurses in Cambodia to perform the procedure, thus expanding care to even more children. For the past two years, Grossfeld said, they have also performed open heart surgery during their trips.
Grossfeld got involved following a family vacation to Thailand and Cambodia, when his wife, Susan, arranged a visit to the Siem Reap hospital. Since then, his wife has handled logistics for the missions, while he works on the medical end of things.
“She’s been the driving force behind this. It wouldn’t happen without her,” Grossfeld said.
Cambodia’s lack of medical resources dates back to the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when nearly all of the country’s doctors were killed, Grossfeld said.
“Children born with congenital heart defects in Cambodia are basically left to die,” he said.
Grossfeld said the missions are a family affair, as he and his wife also bring along their 7-year-old son and his wife’s mother. The next trip is planned for Thanksgiving week.
Dr. Gregory Feld, a resident of Fairbanks Ranch and director of cardiac electrophysiology at UCSD, has gone on two missions to Bangalore, India. The procedures take place at the Sri Saytha Sai Institute for Higher Medical Sciences, a nonprofit teaching hospital.
Among the procedures performed by the team are ablation for abnormal heart rhythms, and implantation of pacemakers and defibrillators, said Feld.
“We can take the experience we have and take care of people who would never get care otherwise,” Feld said. “The poor, which are the majority, have nothing.”
Children’s Lifeline initially focused on heart-related problems, but has since expanded its efforts to treat other types of medical conditions, including neurological disorders and waterborne diseases.
“It’s such a worthy cause. These kids can’t fend for themselves,” Woods said.
For more information about Children’s Lifeline International, or to donate, visit www.childrens-lifeline.org.