Trustee, Alumnus Helps Heal Children’s Hearts in Honduras
Date published: Oct. 1, 2019
Trustee Thomas (Tom) Zellers, M.D., BA ’79, began making medical mission trips to
Honduras approximately 12 years ago after two colleagues mentioned Project Little
Hearts and suggested that their group, including Zellers, get involved.
Project Little Hearts is a program of The Friends of Barnabas Foundation, an organization
based in Midlothian, Virginia, that sends a medical team each month to assist with
health care in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Central America. Zellers’
first one or two years on the trip, he addressed 17 to 20 cases per week. “Each year
we did more cases, both catheterization and surgery, and the complexity increased,”
Prior to the advent of Zellers and his team, the only therapy the Honduran doctors
had been able to offer their patients, most of whom had congenital heart defects,
was medicine. Zellers and his team aimed to offer full care on these mission trips
and, in doing so, help the Honduran cardiologists build a sustainable cardiac program
in their country through additional training and education.
At the highest volume, Zellers worked 57 cases, most of which were interventions such
as valvuloplasty (the widening of narrowed valves), closure of abnormal vessels and
heart defects, a few vascular stent procedures and some diagnostic catheterizations
before surgery, in 10 days.
“I went for 10 years, two to three times per year,” explained Zellers, an interventional
pediatric cardiologist and senior vice president and chief clinical officer at Children’s
Health in Plano.
“Typically, we went for four days to screen patients one to two times per year, then
for 10 to 14 days for the cardiac catheterization and surgery procedures at least
once per year," he said. "We have not gone for 18 months because of the political
unrest and travel warnings but hope to be back soon.”
Zellers and his team work with local cardiologists, none of whom did any catheter
procedures before Zellers began going, and with patients who often had already been
receiving care from these cardiologists.
“I re-educated one of the local cardiologists on the new catheterization and interventional
procedures,” explained Zellers. “We supported the training of a surgeon to learn cardiac
surgery over the past four to five years, and he is now independently doing cardiac
surgery in the two largest cities in the country. This was an excellent opportunity
to build a program through education and empowerment; the surgeon and cardiologists
now have a sustainable program that is run by them.”
Before this surgeon was fully trained, Zellers and his team averaged between 12 and
20 surgeries and 38 and 57 catheterizations per trip, with patients coming from all
over the country and ranging in age from a few months to 21 years.
“We typically had two to three surgeons, two cardiologists, two intensivists, three
anesthesiologists, five to six nurse practitioners, two heart-lung pump technicians,
five to six nurses, a blood bank professional, a social worker, sometimes a chaplain,
a pharmacist, and two to three respiratory therapists,” said Zellers. “Over those
10 years, we offered surgery or interventional catheterization to over 500 patients
and evaluated more than 2,000 patients.”
Zellers and his team traveled by plane to Honduras, taking along donated equipment
(many medical device companies donated or provided equipment through grants), medications
and monitors, and teaching and implementing quality and safety measures. Occasionally
they had to purchase items. They worked with the local government and border customs
office to make certain all of their medical equipment could legally be brought into
Everyone on Zellers’ team went on a volunteer basis. Students and residents had clinical
benchmarks they needed to achieve as part of their education; fellows went for the
experience and got echo training credit.
“This was a great opportunity to provide much-needed care to families in need, many
of whom would never have had any intervention if not for the program,” said Zellers.
“This project was incredibly fulfilling individually and as a team — it also allowed
many of us to make lifelong friends. We were truly blessed to be able to do this work.”
“I worked alongside a large number of Christian individuals who worked selflessly
and with the sole purpose to help someone less fortunate,” he added. “You never know
where God will lead you, nor what He may ask of you. But if you are prepared to answer,
much good can come from that willingness to give of yourself. This is all about trying
to make a child’s life better than it was before you met him/her and perhaps enabling
an opportunity toward a better future not previously envisioned.”