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Giving back to Grenada; Doctors donate heart care to island citizens

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, November 19, 2016
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The Room Where It Happens

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS – Dr. Bilal Ayub performs a procedure to insert an implantable cardioverter defibrillator into one of three patients from the island nation of Grenada. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

On Wednesday morning three patients waited for surgery in a foreign hospital, nearly 3,000 miles from home.

The patients, two women and a man, came to Wise Health System from Grenada, an island in the Caribbean. They’re the third set of heart patients brought to the U.S. by Dr. Jason Finkelstein of Advanced Heart Care in Decatur. Finkelstein attended medical school at St. George’s University on the island and has gone back at least once a year since 2008 to provide heart care and evaluations to a population without a cardiologist.

“The population was extremely nice to me and the other students when I was living there. That was their country, and they were extending their graciousness for us to go there,” Finkelstein said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to give back to the citizens down there. Certainly they’re in dire need of improved health care.

“Now that I have the skills and connections I can help out.”

Finkelstein is one of eight alumni of St. George’s that visit the island to provide specialized care. They sometimes help patients there by donating surgical time. Finkelstein first brought two patients to the U.S. in 2010 for surgery that couldn’t be performed with the equipment available in Grenada, and another came in 2013. Now whenever he visits, Finkelstein will often see his old patients – they’ve even invited him over for dinner.

Resting Up

RESTING UP – Leila Belfon of Grenada waits in her hospital room for her second procedure of the week. Belfon said she was excited to finish the surgery so she could go home and see her granddaughter. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

This is the largest group from Grenada so far. Finkelstein and his partner, Dr. Bilal Ayub, donate surgical time, WHS provides their lab and Boston Scientific donated the equipment for the surgeries. Procedures that could have cost $200,000 were performed at no cost for those receiving them.

Finkelstein performed a cauterization procedure on all three patients Tuesday, followed by Ayub’s procedure to insert implantable cardioverter defibrillators Wednesday.

The defibrillators will work to keep all three alive should they experience sudden cardiac arrest in the future, Finkelstein said, but for two of the patients, Jille-Ann Samuel and Leila Belfon, he expects an increase in quality of life.

It’s something both of the women are looking forward to.

Belfon worked in public service as a police officer 35 years, and she said she felt abandoned by the government when social workers wouldn’t help her get to Cuba to see a cardiologist after she started experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath.

Dr. Finkelstein saw Belfon a year ago during one of his visits, and he discovered she had hypertensive heart disease and not epilepsy, her original diagnosis. Another social worker helped Belfon and Finkelstein arrange for her visa to the U.S. so she could receive surgery and repair the real problem.

Excited to finally see the place that inspired one of her favorite television shows, “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Belfon was also pleased to meet the people who lived there. She wanted to thank everyone she’d met in Texas for their kindness during her stay.

“Everybody has treated me so well,” she said. “It’s like family here.”

Belfon’s own family back home anxiously awaits her return. She’s helping raise her 7-year-old granddaughter and had the girl in my mind as she waited to be taken in for her second procedure of the week.

“I always pray to God and ask Him to let me live long so I can take care of my granddaughter, and He can take me after she’s all grown up,” Belfon said.

Samuel waited years for her chance to have these procedures done. She said she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2012 and first met Finkelstein in 2014.

“He promised to help me,” Samuel recalled. “He said, ‘I’m gonna help you.'”

She first planned to have the surgery in 2014, but unfortunately the trip didn’t work out. When her visa was approved for this trip, Samuel was ecstatic.

After years of not being able to do her own cooking and cleaning, relying on her husband and children for everything, Samuel said she looks forward to taking care of them in return once she’s better. The prospect of greater independence was well-worth the long wait, she said.

After both procedures, the patients rested a day in the hospital. The women planned to leave Texas Friday and sightsee for a bit in the U.S., and then they’ll return home to their families, ready for a new life with improved heart health.

“Here am I today, lucky, thankful for Dr. Jason,” Samuel said. “And most of all I’m thankful to God.

“I realized God has given me another chance.”

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