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Canadian medical team partners with Qatar Airways and RwandAir to deliver life‑saving care in Rwanda

Posted by Kate Rogers on June 30, 2022 in News
Drs. Keir Stewart (left) and Dr. David Horne (right) join Dr. Maurice Musoni at the King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, Rwanda as part of the Canada Rwanda Open Heart Project.
Drs. Keir Stewart (left) and Dr. David Horne (right) join Dr. Maurice Musoni at the King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, Rwanda as part of the Canada Rwanda Open Heart Project.

A Canadian team of 30 Dalhousie-led volunteers, the first in Rwanda, have performed 13 life-saving cardiac surgeries at King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, Rwanda, thanks in part to the generous support of the Official Airline Partners, Qatar Airways and RwandAir.

Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) contributes significantly to cardiovascular mortality in children and young adults in many developing countries where it is diagnosed at an advanced stage. In these patients, surgery is required for survival. Rwanda’s ambition is to create an independent sustainable open-heart surgery program through partnership with institutions that have well-established programs.

Led by cardiac surgeons Drs. Keir Stewart and David Horne from Dalhousie University’s Department of Surgery, two Canadian Rwandan Open-heart Project (CROP) teams began their travel to the African country on May 19 to perform valve replacement surgeries in adults with RHD, and surgeries in pediatric patients with congenital heart conditions or RHD. Both the adult and pediatric surgeries, which finished early June, have seen great success.

A partnership years in the making

Plans for the project began in 2019 after Dr. Stewart’s wife, a nurse in the Department of Anesthesia, having made several trips to Rwanda with a Canadian anesthesia team, realized there was no ongoing cardiac surgery program. At her suggestion, Dr. Stewart connected with the administration at the King Faisal Hospital with the idea to assist in the development of an autonomous cardiac surgery program, while simultaneously gathering several interested partners in Canada, including Dr. Horne. A small team travelled to Rwanda in 2019 to determine if such a program would even be possible, and after confirming it would be, began taking the steps necessary for a surgical mission in fall 2020.

Like so many things, COVID-19 postponed the trip until this spring when the cardiac teams assembled by Drs. Stewart and Horne were finally able to see their hard work and preparations pay off.

“The experience at King Faisal Hospital was extraordinary, satisfying, and fun, with everyone contributing,” says Dr. Stewart. “The Rwandan staff were very engaged, friendly, and committed. Things went very well.”

Support vital for success

Getting the team on the ground in Rwanda was a major piece in the planning and execution of this very complex mission. It would not be possible without Qatar Airways and RwandAir.Their involvement is vital to the project and CROP’s ability to contribute to ongoing efforts to improve health outcomes for people with cardiac disease in Rwanda.

“Having the support of Qatar Airways and RwandAir is allowing us to impact so many lives,” says Dr. David Horne. “In the end, we’re not operating on 10-15 people – we’re touching the next thousand people this Rwandan team works on. We’re already seeing the impacts of this program.”

Dr. Stewart is hoping to continue the partnership with both the King Faisal Hospital for several years, deepening the connection with the Rwandan medical community, and contributing to cardiac surgery education, while also contributing to Rwanda’s goal of establishing an independent, sustainable open-heart program. This work will not be possible without the incredible support of the Official Airline Partners, who are excited to be involved.

“It’s not every day you are presented with an opportunity that could help change a person’s life forever,” says His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker, Group Chief Executive Officer for Qatar Airways. “At Qatar Airways, we are honoured to be part of The Canadian Rwandan Open-heart Project, ensuring the arrival of medical teams in Rwanda so they can carry out this important work.”

The Canadian Rwanda Open-heart Project, along with Qatar Airways, RwandAir and other supporters, are grateful to be part of a wider network collaborating with King Faisal Hospital to further their mission to provide quality specialized health care, clinical training, and research, and their broader goal of operating Rwanda’s first independent Cardiac Centre.

In the long-term, the collaboration with Qatar Airways and RwandAir will improve health outcomes and make life-changing care more accessible for Rwandans.