A 36-bed neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit was unveiled by Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales, and his wife, First Lady Hilda Patricia de Morales, on March 16, 2017. 

The country’s largest and most innovative unit was donated to the National Public Hospital of Escuintla by the International Medical Outreach Program (IMO), a collaboration between Atrium Health and Heineman Medical Outreach, Inc. 

IMO donated all the necessary supplies and machinery to fully equip the newly constructed unit. Chiquita Brands International delivered three massive containers of equipment from the United States to Guatemala. This facility also was made possible with support from the Bissell Family Foundation, The Leon Levine Foundation, Heineman Foundation for Research, Charitable and Educational Purposes, Inc.

According to Hospital Director, Dr. Luis R. Calvo, the staff at Hospital Regional de Escuintla treats 1,000 pediatric cases a year. With the opening of the new facility, the expectation is that number will triple. 

“There are many small angels all around us who can see what has been done here,” said Dr. Willy Menendez, the chief of pediatrics at Hospital Regional de Escuintla. “We will save many more little lives.”

The new facility was dedicated in honor of Peggy Hynes, wife of Atrium Health’s form board chair, Jim Hynes. The Hynes family have been long-time supporters of the IMO program and made several donations toward the development of the new unit. Jim and Peggy Hynes, along with several members of their family, attended the opening and were recognized by President and First Lady. 

“We are excited and humbled we’ve had the opportunity to make a difference here,” Jim Hynes said. “This is all part of what Atrium Health does as a part of our mission.”

The grand opening was also attended by representatives from Guatemala’s Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Social Development, the Mayor of Escuintla, and many other national and local officials. 

The equipment includes ventilators, patient monitors, incubators, infant warmers and cribs. In addition to the equipment, Atrium Health physicians will provide consultations and special training to the providers in the new unit. IMO has also provided virtual communications equipment for education, training and communications. 

“Being able to work with the doctors and nurses here has been incredibly inspiring and rewarding,” said Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit Medical Director Dr. Dwight Bailey, who is leading the training and education exchange. “The people here are so incredibly dedicated and work with what they have. I know how much this equipment will mean for them and their patients and how important this work is for both of our organizations.”

To learn more about this initiative, read the interview with Theresa Johnson, the director of the International Medical Outreach Program, and Francis Robicsek, MD, internationally renowned cardiac surgeon with Atrium Health and Vice President of International Medical Outreach.

When did the idea to create the largest of its kind neonatal/pediatric intensive care unit first come about?

For the last five years, this has been a dream of Dr. Calvo, the director of the hospital in Guatemala, Dr. Menendez, chief of pediatrics, and Dr. Posadas, sub-chief of pediatrics. They held tightly to this dream and never wavered. We merely stepped into their dream to make it a reality.

Why is this so needed in Central America?

The infant and pediatric mortality rate is extremely high – seven times that of the US – and half of the population in Central America lives below the poverty line. Because the majority of people live in rural areas, they have difficulties to access to healthcare.  Designated areas for pediatric care are often inadequate or absent, and one of the most significant needs in Central America is the need for facilities to treat critically ill infants and children.

How was Guatemala chosen?

With a population of 16 million, Guatemala is the largest country in Central America. While the International Medical Outreach team lends support to all Central American countries, our longest and most notable relationship has been with Guatemala. IMO has been working in Guatemala since the early 1970s, when it co-founded UNICAR, the only institution in Central America dedicated to cardiac care. Most of our support in Guatemala is directed toward the rural, national public hospitals, where the majority of the indigent population live and access to health care is inadequate.

Can you share some specifics about what equipment was donated?

IMO donated all the equipment – ventilators, patient monitors, incubators, infant warmers, cribs – to fully furnish the unit. Before, the National Hospital in Escuintla rented its equipment, which put a tremendous burden on a hospital that is already struggling with enormous budget constraints and a burgeoning patient load. They simply cannot afford to rent enough equipment to meet the demand. For example, some infant patients share a monitor that sits on a plastic chair between them. The monitor gets connected to one baby for about two hours, then moved to the next baby for about the same amount of time, and this process is repeated over and over again. Other equipment in the unit, like infant warmers, also were broken, so they used gooseneck lamps to keep the babies warm instead.

Why did IMO want to be part of this project?

After hearing the frustration and desperation of the physicians who lack the tools to treat critically ill infants – seeing multiple babies in an infant warmer made to hold only one baby, learning of the high infant mortality rate and seeing the hopeless look on a parent’s face – how could we not start this project? Every parent wants the best possible care for their child, no matter if it’s the US or Guatemala.

How will IMO continue to support this initiative?

Our doctors will be available to provide consultations, we may send more donations, and – through the leadership of Dr. Dwight Bailey, medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Levine Children’s Hospital – medical training is underway. We also will use donated virtual communication equipment for education, training and consultation purposes.

The Atrium Health IMO team is small. How does it feel to accomplish something so grand?

While we are grateful that we can help, I am not sure any of us ever feel like we “finished the job” because the need is so great. But, it is really about the healthcare providers. Time after time, we stand in awe of them. To watch these dedicated men and women work with little or no equipment and supplies – and to maintain the stamina, resiliency and good attitude day after day under stressful conditions – is nothing short of remarkable. Watching the local providers after IMO has completed a donation gives everyone an awesome feeling.

Dr. Robicsek, why do this type of work?

It’s the people. Besides, we have the resources, knowledge and volunteers, so why not put them to good use and help our neighbors?