Open Hearts: Cardiac surgeon, quilters team up to help sick children in Honduras
Operating in tight spots is a way of life for Dr. Steve Leonard.
The pediatric heart surgeon, formerly of Grand Junction, works on the smallest of patients, with their narrow chest cavities, at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver.
On Sept. 20, he will travel for the sixth time to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to perform life-saving surgeries on poor children who are desperate for medical care. It’s a dangerous city of about 1 million people, and it’s labeled “the murder capital of the world,” according to the Citizen Council for Public Security, Justice and Peace, which focuses on crime statistics from the Western Hemisphere.
“There is lots of violence and horrible crimes, sometimes 12 murders a day,” Leonard says.
Drug cartels and rampant arms trafficking keep the city in turmoil. He and his colleagues who travel there annually are cautioned to stay close to their hotel and not venture out.
But nothing dissuades them from their mission. On each trip, the team operates in a hospital on about two dozen children from infants to teens. Procedures include open heart surgeries, echocardiograms and catheterizations. Some have needed surgery for heart defects since birth, and others have advanced conditions that cannot be repaired, which is heartbreaking, Leonard says.
This fall, along with surgical instruments and medications, the doctor will take handmade quilts from Grand Junction for each Honduran patient. The children will receive these before surgery and take them home as they recuperate.
The quilts were made by Monument Quilters, a local group that includes Leonard’s mother, Barbara Leonard of Grand Junction.
She speaks proudly of her son and his distinguished career. A graduate of Central High School and Mesa State College, Dr. Leonard received his medical degree from the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. He and his wife, who have four children, now live in Highlands Ranch.
Leonard has become a leader in his specialty and provides medical care in Honduras through the Friends of Barnabas Foundation. He also has been an advocate for Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation, which provides scholarships for Denver medical professionals and attendants to make the trips. The medical teams stay in San Pedro Sula about 10 days, he says, and many of them pay their own way.
Leonard’s mother serves on a Monument Quilters committee that has sewn quilts for charity since 2007. Phyllis Hansen, president of the quilt group at that time, started the project, along with Barbara Leonard and Emalou Peck. The committee has grown since with many participating each year.
Several members gathered this summer at the home of Mary Biesecker, 2013 project coordinator, to turn in 23 finished quilts for Honduras. Some are crib size, some a bit longer for older children. Some are tied as comforters rather than quilted, and no batting is used because heavy quilts are not needed in the tropical climate.
Dr. Leonard says the children who are recipients love the colorful quilts, and their mothers really appreciate them, too.
“People there never have anything that nice,” he says, describing how many families live in one-room homes with a dirt floor and an open fire in the middle. Unfortunately, the hospital there sees many burn victims from children falling into these fires.
Because the young heart patients often are malnourished and have parasites, they are screened beforehand, fed good meals and given vitamins and medication “in the hope to improve their health somewhat before major surgeries,” Leonard says.
Since his first trip, an effort is under way to train a Honduran surgeon and establish a heart program at the hospital in San Pedro Sula.
“We hope to work ourselves out of a job,” he says.
But so far his presence and that of other medical team members are an annual godsend to the country.
Leonard says he’s happy that Monument Quilters can be a part of that as well.
“What impresses me so much is the beautiful people in Honduras,” he says. “They have an amazing appreciation for what we are doing. Often, their child has no hope. They are honorable people, and we leave feeling more blessed than them.”