PROFILE: SHEREEN ABDEL-MEGUID, FOUNDER, HEART TRUST
Then Story: International banking/Full time mom
Now Story: Founder, Heart Trust
Curb Moment: Meeting a boy named Henry
In a strong departure from her initial career in international banking, Shereen Abdel-Meguid credits finding her true calling to a particularly poignant curb moment; a chance encounter with a young boy named Henry who inspired Sherry to pursue a new path “saving tiny hearts” around the world.
You once had a financial career in New York City, how did you end up doing what you are doing now?
My learning curve had become flat; I was in the Northeast Africa Lending Group in the ’80’s for a U.S. major bank and was saying ‘no’ all the time to banks in Africa who were looking for loans or lines of credit. It just wasn’t challenging anymore. My creativity was stifled and I was no longer drawn to the idea of an international banking career. A few years after my first child was born, I decided to stay home full time. In my heart I knew that’s where I needed to be but intellectually I wasn’t growing the way my soul needed and I knew I needed to pursue something more– I just wasn’t sure what that should be.
And you did.
I did! A woman I volunteered with in the PTA, was part of a non-profit (Heart Care International) which performed heart surgeries on children in Guatemala. She invited me on a trip to Guatemala and it shook my world up in a way I never could have imagined. I met the most extraordinary people and was touched forever by the gravely ill children and their families. I arrived on that trip as a volunteer extra set of hands with no idea what my role would be. I ended up organizing the anesthesia supplies. During that trip, I was invited into an operating room where I watched Henry, an 18 year old Down’s Syndrome patient, turn from blue to pink. That moment literally changed my life. I knew then what my life’s purpose was to be. Following that trip, I went from a former banker and then stay-at-home mom to running cardiac missions to help children with congenital heart defects. Shortly after my return from Guatemala, I was asked to join the Board and eventually I became the Executive Director, a role I held at Heart Care for eight years. I oversaw the procurement and all the logistical details of the medical missions as well as the on the ground troubleshooting during each mission.
What do you mean when you say “turn from blue to pink?”
Well, Henry was blue because his body was not receiving enough oxygen due to his heart defect. After surgery, his heart was pumping properly and his blood was oxygenated causing him to turn pink, as it should be. Since then I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times to children in developing countries around the world. When I see those pink lips, I know that child now has a future. Maybe that first job of organizing the anesthesiology equipment doesn’t sound that significant but I felt involved and stimulated in a way I hadn’t felt for so long. My world opened. I felt something shift for me that is hard to articulate. I guess you could say it was my Curb moment. As a child, I grew up going to Egypt in the summers and seeing poor children all the time. I always knew that I wanted to help but, until my experience in Guatemala, it had never become clear how I was going to make a difference. That experience in Guatemala made it clear as day.
How did you transition to starting your own non-profit?
My trips with Heart Care International were wonderful trips and I will forever be grateful for that time. We performed hundreds of surgeries with teams of 70 to over 100 volunteers as we tried to meet the high demand for children needing surgery. We were working to decrease the huge waiting list of gravely ill children who did not have local options for safe surgery. We were doing our best to work with local surgeons but, because of the staggering need, the focus was on volume first, teaching second. My vision in founding Heart Trust was to focus primarily on teaching, so that we could not only do the surgeries but also leave behind a legacy of improved medical care once the missions were over. So, with Heart Trust, we take very small teams of a maximum of fifteen medical professionals to work hand-in-hand with our local counterparts, in an environment that promotes the comfortable exchange of learning.
We travel to countries where there is a pediatric cardiac surgery program currently in place but where there is great room for improvement in skill and patient care. Our teams teach the medical teams in the other countries how to do the surgeries themselves. Our approach is, ‘give them a fishing pole and teach them to fish;’ cardiologists, perfusionists, O.R. nurses all working together, hand-in-hand…our small team working side by side with the local team. In the US, kids born with congenital heart defects generally have surgery right away but in other countries, the procedures are not routine due to lack of resources and medical training. The local surgeons, and the rest of the pediatric cardiac team really need the hands on experience and that’s where we come in.
So for us, it’s more than the 10 kids or so we operate on that trip, it’s about the next 100 kids that will be successfully operated on after we leave. For example there’s a condition called Epstein’s Anomaly, a problem with the tricuspid valve. I brought a surgeon from Children’s Hospital in Boston to Guatemala, and he was able to teach the local surgeon how to repair the tricuspid. By the time our flight landed back in the States, the local surgeon had successfully completed the repair of a child suffering from Epstein’s Anomaly on his own. Now they can routinely do them. That’s what our trips are all about.
Right now you recruit U.S. surgeons and other medical professionals to join your volunteer teams, but you are the only member of the Heart Trust administration team. What does that mean?
It means I handle all the logistics of each mission, from team recruitment, procurement of all the donated or purchased medical supplies, travel arrangements, dealing with the host hospital staff and troubleshooting during the trips. We also prepare a “post-trip memo” based on our observations and suggestions during the mission which allows for a helpful guide for improvement for the local team. All our work is done on a strictly pro bono basis. No one receives any remuneration for any work they do. My team members donate their valuable vacation time to work on these trips. Our cost of an open-heart surgery or electrophysiology procedure is about $2,500 per child as compared with almost $80-100,000 in the United States. I’m extremely proud that 100% of all donations we receive go directly to fund our program services.
Thus far, my cardiac work has taken me to Guatemala, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Uganda and Egypt. I have also run a burn mission in Tanzania and recently ran a pediatric urology mission in Costa Rica.
You take risks to do this work. What are they?
Not intentionally! In Egypt, the first revolution took place while we still had kids recovering in the hospital. There have been times in Guatemala where we needed to be concerned about security issues. In El Salvador, our driver was carjacked and they were burning tires and protesting Americans outside of the hospital. We could smell the rubber burning while we performed the surgeries inside the hospital. I am very conscious that my team is donating their time, and I don’t forget that their families are giving up precious vacation time as well, and I deeply value the safety of each of my team members. We usually stay “just under the radar” wherever we go. For this reason, I usually will not agree to a press conference until the end of the trip– and will only agree to do so if I know it will benefit the local cardiac program.
Hmmm riots, robberies, and burning tires. Obviously you are a risk taker, do you also see yourself as a change agent or leader?
I’m able to motivate and mobilize a team and I think that’s a critical skill for what I’m trying to accomplish. None of my trips would happen if I couldn’t get everyone to work together, so I suppose I am both a leader and an agent of change. I know our honesty and pure agenda– to help the kids– also makes us effective agents of change because of the trust the local team has in us and our motives. Our team is there to work with the local team and make positive changes– and those changes absolutely take place. I’m very proud of our work. I believe that my passion and commitment shines through as well as my sense of humor. Laughter is a universal language and certainly helps in tough situations– I actually consider a sense of humor one of the qualities of an effective team member. I’m also not afraid to show emotion. I joke with the docs that I didn’t go through the medical school brainwashing that says ‘don’t show emotion’ like they did! These kids belong to someone and I carry that feeling of loving care with me.
I hope my own kids see the depth each of us has to increase our empathy and compassion even if it’s for a complete stranger.
What advice would you give to others who are at a curb moment in their lives and might be contemplating a change?
My answer is simple: DO IT! I simply cannot imagine what my life would be had I not stepped off the curb all those years ago. That step enriched my life in a way that I cannot adequately express. To find a passion which fuels you is the greatest gift or blessing a person can be given. I am not diminishing my other very blessed role as a mother to my three great kids at all– but, with my kids now on their own, I am so grateful to have a purpose in my life that brings me such joy. I am truly happiest on my missions.