Meet Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan and Dr. Hemapriya Natesan – the doctors who left their well-paying jobs to start a foundation to treat underprivileged children with a deadly heart condition for free.
Aorses Neya, 6 and her brother Sam, 4, were diagnosed with Congenital Heart Disease within a month of their birth. CHD is a defect in the structure of the heart and is present in patients from the time of birth.
The siblings’ parents tried their best to seek treatment for the kids and visited many hospitals. But the financial burden of getting both children treated was impossible for their father, a daily wage labourer, to carry.
One CHD surgery costs between Rs. 3 lakh – 5 lakh and the family had lost all hope.
This was before they came to know about Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan, a paediatric cardiac surgeon, and his wife Dr. Hemapriya Natesan – the founders of Little Moppet Heart Foundation. With this foundation, the couple aims to provide financial and medical support to underprivileged children suffering from CHD. Once their parents met the doctors, Aorses and Sam were operated on for free in December last year and they are completely healthy now.
Over the years, Dr. Gopi and Dr. Hemapriya have worked and lived in many metropolitan cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad. In every hospital where they worked, the duo received several patients who could not afford CHD treatment. According to reports, about 78,000 infants born with CHD in India die every year
“Even though there are government schemes, they don’t help with the complete cost of the surgery. So hospitals refrain from taking such patients in, asking them to go to government hospitals or somewhere else,” says 34-year-old Dr. Hemapriya.
On shifting to Madurai, the couple found that for residents of about 10-12 nearby districts, Madurai was the only bigger city in southern Tamil Nadu where they could go for health checkups.
Most CHD patients are also referred to Madurai hospitals from smaller villages because the treatment is complicated and the infrastructure is not available in rural areas.
But even city hospitals lack affordable facilities. Gopi, who was working in a government hospital at the time, used to get many patients who could not afford the treatment. In other cases, patients would reach them quite late and the condition would be inoperable.
“This is due to lack of awareness,” says Dr. Hemapriya. “If doctors detect the condition in the first year of the child’s life, it can be treated. But when people come here for treatment and find out the cost, they just return without surgery. By the time they come back, they are not fit anymore. ” She adds that there is a need for people to be aware about the symptoms of this disease. It does not cause chest pain and the earliest symptoms include rapid breathing, bluish skin, poor weight gain, frequent cough and fever, etc.
Seeing the number of these patients and moved by their situation, the couple decided to start a foundation to help those from weaker economic backgrounds.
The foundation was started in November 2016 for which both Dr. Gopi and Dr. Hemapriya left their well-paying jobs.
They now conduct health camps in rural areas and cities in southern Tamil Nadu for checkups and to spread awareness about CHD. The couple goes from door to door talking about the disease, other than going to primary healthcare centres, Anganwadi schools, and junior schools. If there are any patients, they have to visit the doctors in the camp where they are screened. Those eligible for surgery and those who need a follow-up are asked to come to Madurai. There, Dr. Gopi has a tie-up with another hospital where he operates on the patients for free.
One such patient was Kannan, a 15-year-old diagnosed with CHD within a year of his birth.
But due to lack of awareness and funds, he didn’t get any treatment. He dropped out of school because of health issues when he was just nine. After Dr. Gopi examined him, the couple counselled his parents and they agreed for the surgery after hesitating for some time. He was operated on in December 2016 and today, with the help of its in-house counsellor, Little Moppet Heart Foundation is helping him prepare of his class 10 exams.
The couple started with a camp in Madurai where they worked in three schools with about 5,000 students. By now they have screened 500 patients up to 15 years of age and have operated on 15 of them.
Prior to this, Dr. Gopi and Dr. Hemapriya were working worked in at a hospital in Raipur on the same disease. Dr. Gopi has performed over 500 CHD surgeries till now. To sustain themselves, he sometimes preforms paid surgeries and Dr. Hemapriya also owns a business for baby food that helps them out.
In the nearcoming future, they want to conduct camps in every district headquarter south of Madurai, but are currently struggling because of lack of funds.
“Quitting our jobs was a life changing decision for us because it is very difficult to work in this field without regular income. But the problem is that anywhere we go, people here will be in the same condition. We will be in big cities earning money, but there will be no job satisfaction. And so many patients will come in and we will say no to them for surgeries. So we had to start,” concludes Dr. Hemapriya.