Photo by Sarah Walor
Dr. Nadia Blanchet (left) and Dr. Donna Brown
Originally founded in the Richmond area in 2001 as International Hospital for Children, World Pediatric Project has won the hearts of many local doctors. Dr. Nadia Blanchet feels honored to be associated with the organization. “There are dozens of other Richmond physicians who have also given of their time and resources for many years to serve the children of developing nations,” she says.
She and her husband, urologist Dr. Kent Rollins of Virginia Urology, have been going to St. Vincent to provide medical care since they first visited the Caribbean island on their honeymoon. They started working with WPP several years later.
Blanchet, a plastic surgeon, will never forget one 3-year-old boy she helped. A candle had set his mosquito net aflame, and he’d suffered burns on 50 percent of his body. When Blanchet received pictures of the boy, she prayed he would live until her scheduled visit so she could operate. “I didn’t sleep for a month worrying about that patient and if I would be successful,” she says.
The boy did live, but his wounds didn’t heal properly. His arm was stuck to his chest wall, and doctors couldn’t find his fingers because his hand healed shut. His entire right arm and eye weren’t functional. During the course of two surgeries, Blanchet and Dr. Donna Brown, an ophthalmologist at Virginia Eye Institute, worked to correct the problems. “Dr. Brown released his eye, and we had to do a tremendous amount of skin grafting to release his arm,” Blanchet says. “Now he has an arm that moves and has full range of motion. His hand opens, and we found fingers in his hand. It was such an extreme case. It was both gratifying and terrifying.”
Blanchet considers the island her second home. “Whenever we leave and fly over the island, we cry,” she says. “We cry on the last day. We love the people, the island, the food, the culture and the tree frogs at night.”
Brown became involved with WPP after an ophthalmologist in St. Vincent asked her to help a 9-month-old baby that had a malignancy of the retina (retinoblastoma). He knew that Brown and her husband, Dr. Robert Brown of Virginia Urology, came to the island to work with patients.
“That cancer can grow into the brain. It can be fatal, but it has a 90 percent curable rate if caught early,” Donna Brown says, noting she contacted the then International Hospital to see if they could arrange for the baby to come to Richmond. “I got an email on Wednesday from them, and the baby was here on Sunday. Any organization that can be that efficient and responsive is an organization I want to be associated with.”
Today, the young boy is 12 and doing well. “Every year I go to St. Vincent, I see him,” Brown says.
Brown considers the week she spends in St. Vincent every year to be “probably the best week of my life, from the standpoint of feeling that if I didn’t care for these children, they wouldn’t have the opportunity for care,” she says. “I get so much out of it. The people of St. Vincent have become family.”
Dr. Chester Sharps, who specializes in pediatric orthopedics at Tuckahoe Orthopaedics, began volunteering for the organization because he saw a need in St. Vincent. “I went down and established a pediatric orthopedic mission in St. Vincent through World Pediatric Project. Now we go twice a year,” he says. “We do one scoliosis mission and one general orthopedics mission. The people at World Pediatric Project were really dedicated and interested in serving this population and bringing sophisticated tertiary medical care to a part of the world that didn’t have it.”
The children under the care of Sharps and his colleagues have a variety of orthopedic problems. Some have congenital problems, such as a clubfoot or dislocated hips. Some have a broken bone that didn’t heal properly. One 10-year-old girl from St. Lucia came to Sharps for treatment of her bowed legs. “She had the most bowed legs you have seen in your life,” he says. “She looked like an ‘O.’ ”
After her legs were corrected, her father started crying and told Sharps he had a dream that his daughter would one day walk down the street and people wouldn’t laugh at her. “I can’t tell you how great that makes you feel,” Sharps says. “Their gratitude is unbelievable. But as much as they may get, I know I get more just by the thanks in their eyes.”
Photo courtesy of World Pediatric Project
Dr. Scott Gullquist with a patient on a 2004 trip to the Dominican Republic
Dr. Scott Gullquist, director of cardiac critical care and of noninvasive imaging at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, traveled with WPP in 2005 to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to provide training to create a sustainable in-country congenital heart disease management and surgery program. The team also provides ongoing support “to promote excellence similar to what is seen in the U.S.,” Gullquist says. “WPP finds hospitals where that mission has a likelihood of success.”
Gullquist and his team provide education and training to local doctors regarding the evaluation of, and surgery for, congenital heart defects. “That training program is still going on,” he says. “The Dominican team can now continue to operate on its own even without the support of a U.S.-based team.”
In 2011, the Panamanian government heard of WPP’s success in the Dominican Republic and asked if it could be recreated in Panama. “They are building a new cardiovascular hospital,” Gullquist says. “The Panamanian government is very interested in the health and well-being of their children.”
Gullquist echoes the comments of the others regarding the satisfaction his WPP work gives him. “We are teaching people to fish, not fishing for them,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”