by Matt Skoufalos
“For me, working with HeartGift and the docs here, being able to provide healthcare to people who don’t have it, is one of my favorite things about working in Austin and working at this place.” — Linda Park
“I was born and raised in Texas, and there’s kid of a pride with being a Texan,” says Houston native Linda Park. “People really love to be in Texas.”
Texans will tell you that the Lone Star state is so expansive, home to such a varied set of people and places, that it often makes travel an afterthought. Why leave Texas to see the world when there’s just so much of Texas to see?
But for Park, a cardiac nurse who had always wanted to perform medical mission work, her participation with the nonprofit HeartGift Foundation has brought parts of the world to her that she otherwise would have never seen.
“For me, working with HeartGift and the docs here, being able to provide healthcare to people who don’t have it, is one of my favorite things about working in Austin and working at this place,” she said.
“This kind of brings medical missions home,” Park said. “I’m able to work with kids and families who would never have these opportunities in their countries. [Working with] this population is something I wanted to always do.”
From its roots in Austin, Texas, HeartGift has expanded to four more cities in Texas as well as across the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana. In 13 years, HeartGift has helped nearly 200 patients from 26 different countries.
The stated purpose of the foundation is to care for children who are citizens of developing nations in which “specialized medical intervention is scare or nonexistent,” and for the past three years, Park has given of her time to assist HeartGift board member Kenneth Fox, M.D., in realizing that mission.
“We do some more challenging surgeries,” Park said. “A lot of them are correcting defects because they’re all pediatric patients. We get kids from all around the world, and it’s an amazing opportunity.”
Not only does HeartGift specialize in treating pediatric patients who are born with congenital heart defects, but it also provides them with a full complement of services around the surgeries themselves. Because HeartGift patients come to its participating health centers from throughout the world, everything must be coordinated for them, Park said. From travel and lodging for the patients and their families, to meals, translation services and everything else for a period of four to five weeks at a time, the foundation arranges it all.
“For the family, everything is free,” Park said. “They even have host families that they stay with for as long as they need to for the patient to be here and then are discharged home.”
The foundation pays a flat rate per surgery case in hospital fees, but doctors like Fox donate their services at no charge, at a value the foundation estimates exceeded more than $6 million of in-kind services delivered — and that was just in 2012. Volunteers who work with the foundation gave some 23,000 hours of their time to HeartGift patients the year prior to that. Any costs beyond those donated for in-kind services are also absorbed by HeartGift.
In her time working with the foundation, Park said she’s learned so much, not only in terms of surgical techniques, but also in how to handle the challenges of dealing with some of the most delicate patients to come into her operating theater. She said Fox, in particular, has been an inspiration to her.
“He’s amazing,” Park said. “He’s just someone I very much admire, and he’s very selfless and very smart, and I respect him a lot for what he does. Just from working with him [I learned] patience is key.”
Ever since she was exposed to nursing in high school, Park can remember wanting to work with pediatric patients.
“I was in this health science and technology class; we would follow nurses around,” she said, explaining how interested she was in nursing during her teenage years.
In her nursing school residency, Park was exposed to the cardiovascular OR; now, as an adult, she gets to put that curiosity to work.
“It’s always interesting,” she said. “For me, even in nursing school, when I went to see the operations, some people would get grossed out about it, but I was always interested in seeing things like that.”
Park said that the challenge of working in surgery is the biggest thrill for her. Although her nursing rotation takes her through different specialties beyond just cardiovascular procedures — she appreciates the unique challenges of cranial-facial procedures, like jaw reconstructions, for example — it’s the heart surgeries, and the pediatric patients, that mean the most to her.
“I like to be versatile in my work [but] C.V.’s my favorite,” Park said. “I enjoy working in the OR, and with sick patients as well. I like that I can give comfort to them before they go to
sleep. A lot of times they’re nervous.”
For Park, being the friendly face to a nervous patient — especially a sick child — is just an added benefit to the important work of saving lives. And although many such patients have come through
her surgical suite, one patient in particular stands out in her mind.
It wasn’t a pediatric case; in fact, at 20 years old, the patient was technically an adult. Born with Down syndrome, however, “in terms of mental capacity, he was about six years old,” Park said — and the OR was an intimidating place for him to be.
“I’d actually had a really hard week that week,” Park recalls.
“He was so scared and nervous, and he just put out his hand, and I held his hand while they were putting him under anesthesia,” she said.
“To be able to give him that sense of peace in that moment reaffirmed my reason for being in the OR.”