Two nonprofits team with University Health to provide surgeries for underserved children

Two organizations – both with a mission to help children with medical needs, but each with a very different focus – are working with University Health to provide surgeries at the same time.

For 5-year-old Angel Hernandez Cardona, that timing was fortuitous.

Angel, who lives in Honduras, needed surgery to fix an atrial septal defect, which is a hole between his heart’s two upper chambers. It was nonprofit HeartGift that brought him to San Antonio, where a team of University Health physicians and staff worked to fix his heart on Oct. 2.

During preoperative appointments, University Health doctors noticed that Angel also had an undescended testicle. One of the team members, who is also volunteering for the Fresh Start surgeries, asked if Angel could be connected to that team in time for the upcoming Fresh Start Surgery Weekend on Oct. 14-15.

The answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

“All of a sudden everybody’s light bulb went on that here’s a HeartGift patient that would be a great candidate for Fresh Start,” said Dr. Ian Mitchell, surgeon in chief of pediatrics at University Health.

But making that surgery happen in a week isn’t as simple as it might seem.

“There are a lot of requirements in terms of financial background and medical necessity, and making sure that we’re doing the right thing for the right patient at the right time,” Mitchell said.

And each organization has its own processes to do so.

It would have been easier, Mitchell said, just to say that bridging three different organizations in that short amount of time was too difficult. But instead, everybody pitched in to make it happen.

“We were able to take a process that normally takes months and compress it – with all hands on deck – into a matter of a week,” Mitchell said.

It’s an example of the volunteer spirit and commitment to mission of everyone involved – University Health staff and physicians as well as Fresh Start and HeartGift.

“We, at Fresh Start, are fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with two well-respected organizations whose staff and medical professionals are equally committed to transforming Angel’s life through much-needed surgeries,” said Utica Gray, national director of Fresh Start Surgical Gifts.

“Angel’s life will be forever changed through the generosity of those who are truly dedicated to making a lasting impact in the lives of children.”

Taking that commitment to heart and hearth, anesthesiologist Dr. Jared Foote and his family also volunteered to host Angel and his mother, Ena Cardona. Foote said that welcoming Angel and his mother into their home has been a great blessing and joy for his family.

“Furthermore, I am humbled to have had the professional honor of participating in the Heart Gift and Fresh Start programs in my capacity as a physician,” Foote said. “Both charities do such tremendous good in our community and in the world by providing the gifts of healing and hope to those in need.”

Cardona called the two surgeries “a great blessing from the Lord.” She said Angel has become fast friends with the three Foote children. He calls them his new “hermanos,” and will be sad to leave them when he returns to Honduras.

They’ll be sad to see him go. Host families are an integral part of the HeartGift medical journey. They create a “home away from home” for HeartGift children and their caregiver by providing a loving space, attending medical appointments and becoming extended family while the patient is in the U.S. for surgery.

Angel is recovering well from his heart surgery, and a Fresh Start team of University Health volunteers will perform the second surgery during a series of six free pediatric surgeries on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Both nonprofits have skilled teams who search the globe for underserved children, then coordinate the surgeries with University Health medical teams.

HeartGift, a global nonprofit, has partnered yearly with University Health since 2009. The organization has provided more than 1,000 surgeries to children born with heart problems, the most common birth defect. Program organizers identify the children, find host families in San Antonio and organize transportation and appointments for the child and their families. Heart Gift covers a portion of the costs for the surgeries and hospital care.

“Children come to HeartGift very ill and leave with fully functioning hearts and a lifetime of hope and opportunity ahead of them,” said Christy Casey-Moore, chief executive officer of HeartGift. “We are thrilled for the opportunity to work alongside University Health to provide the life-saving heart surgery to Angel and help this family thrive.”

Fresh Start began working with University Health’s all-volunteer medical teams this year, providing transportation, accommodations and treatment at no cost to qualifying children with physical deformities, including cleft palates, webbed toes, misshaped ears and hernias, that may not be covered by insurance. Fresh Start offers help for children from the U.S. and around the world who have no hope of otherwise receiving treatment.

In 2024, Fresh Start and University Health are planning up to three more surgery weekends. They encourage anyone who thinks their child may be eligible for a Fresh Start surgery to apply here.

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