Four-year-old Nomin had a congenital heart defect—Tetralogy of Fallot, to be precise. The defect is rare and is caused “by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth. These defects, which affect the structure of the heart, cause oxygen-poor blood to flow out of the heart and into the rest of the body,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.
In Nomin’s case, Tetralogy of Fallot (pronounced ful-LOE) prevented her from walking on her own. Her skin had a blue tinge. Her hands were extremely cold.
While other children in her village in Mongolia were running around and playing—typical behavior for kids her age—Nomin had to sit on the sidelines, unable to participate.
Her chances of living to adulthood were slim.
Children’s Heart Project
In 1997, the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse was working in Bosnia at a bombed-out hospital, a relic of the war that had recently ended in the region. A staff member met a young boy who needed heart surgery; in fact, medical experts believed the child would die without it. Because of the war and the damage to the hospital, it no longer had the capacity to perform the surgery.
Samaritan’s Purse worked to get the boy to the U.S. so he could receive the life-saving surgery. Out of that experience in Bosnia in the late 1990s, the Children’s Heart Project (CHP), which is part of Samaritan’s Purse, was born.
Now, nearly two decades later, the CHP works in Mongolia, Uganda, Honduras and Bolivia to “bring children with congenital heart defects and their moms, and we partner with children’s hospitals around the United States and Canada to provide the surgeries free of charge,” said Cindy Bonsall, director of the CHP.
The project works with in-country physicians to identify children who need life-saving heart surgery but can’t get the appropriate treatment in their own countries.
The CHP screens “the children, and we provide a local host family from a local host church to host the children and their moms for about five to eight weeks while they are having surgery,” Bonsall continued. “We cover all the airfare expenses and get the visas and all of the documents that are necessary for them to come to North America.”
To date, more than 60 hospitals in North America have participated in the Children’s Heart Project, including the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.—where Nomin was eventually treated.
Nomin and her family come from a poor area in Mongolia. They have no running water, and they live on the side of a mountain in a yurt, or ger, a rounded tent made of wool, Bonsall said. The family faced daily struggles to obtain necessities that most people take for granted. Add to that the heart defect that threatened to take Nomin’s life.
Nomin’s future and the future of her family looking bleak, she received the breath of hope that would eventually save her life and strengthen the faith of those around her: she was selected by the Children’s Heart Project to travel to the U.S. for treatment.
She arrived at Mayo Clinic in Rochester earlier this year and underwent successful heart surgery on March 5. And Nomin was the 1000th patient who has undergone this type of surgery in the U.S. since the Children’s Heart Project began.
Otgonjargal Jijgee, Nomin’s mother, said through an interpreter that there are many changes in Nomin since the surgery.
“First of all, she was really blue before just because of the amount of oxygen,” she said. “Now she is not blue anymore. Her hands were really cold, but now her hands are not; they are really warm. Before the surgery, she couldn’t even walk. Now she is walking and running and just [so much like a youngster]. She is completely healed, I would say.”
For the first four years of Nomin’s life, her mother often had to carry her on her back, Nomin being too weak to walk on her own.
Now that the surgery is completed, the family is eager to get back to Mongolia and also eager for Nomin to get back to life as a 4-year-old.
“Before she couldn’t walk, but now she is walking and running by herself,” Nomin’s mother said. “So she will get back to her preschool and then be with other kids, just as normal kids. Every time I take her to church, I want her to know God’s will because God loves us. What God has done for her life ….”
In addition to the physical aspect that takes place through the Children’s Heart Project, the program also nurtures the spiritual component.
“It’s not only about the physical hearts but spiritual hearts as well,” Bonsall said. “The children are screened in-country, and we have staff in-country who share the gospel while they are in-country. They stay with a local host church and a local host family. A lot of times these kids and these families have never been exposed to Christianity. Just from the love that they experience, a lot of times they ask, ‘Why would you do this?’ and the door is just opened to share faith with them.”
For Nomin’s mother, even though her time in the U.S. was short, God used it to strengthen her faith and teach her about loving others.
“God strengthened my faith more and more and even deeply through this Christian community; Christian people have been working all together and [make me] feel like a family member,” she said. “Also, we are just learning from the Bible study, too. [God] is teaching us that I have to love others, so God is really strengthening my faith deeply. Now I know that I have to love God by loving others.”
Nancy Monsen served as host mom to Nomin and her mother while they were in Rochester. This is her second time in this role, the first being in 2011 when she hosted a 14-month-old boy and his family from the same village in Mongolia.
Monsen’s church—Calvary Evangelical Free Church—has been involved with the Children’s Heart Project for several years.
“The Lord has given me plenty of bedrooms and space to invite others to come here,” Monsen said of her involvement with the project. “I have a heart for Samaritan’s Purse, and what they do with the children’s heart patients is just extremely heartwarming for me.”
Each child who is part of the Children’s Heart Project may stay with two host families during their approximately six weeks in the U.S. Even though the time spent with the host families is relatively short, a strong bond develops between them.
“The bond is very, very strong,” Monsen said of the relationship she has with Nomin and her mother. “[Nomin is] a delightful little child. I really can’t explain because she’s just a sweetheart. She refers to me as her grandmother. That is pure joy for me. It will be difficult to see them go home. But I am very aware that they are anxious to see their families as well. I want them to have that joy too.”
The two times Monsen has served in the host role have been rewarding; and she encourages others to consider serving as a host family in one of the cities where the CHP operates.
“I really believe it’s a great opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think people know how blessed you are. You feel like you are getting more than you have given. I just feel like people should have that opportunity to do this, especially to know another culture.”
The CHP follows each heart patient closely for the first year after the surgery. However, CHP staff in-country develop close ties with the families of those who have undergone surgery and those relationships endure far beyond the first 12 months.
In 2011, the CHP began heart camps as a way to connect those who have undergone the surgery.
“The kids over 5 years of age are invited to camp for four to five days,” Bonsall said. “They are discipled, they have games and lots of activities together. They pray together, they talk about their experience together because they share such a special bond with one another.”
Some of the kids who underwent surgery in the early days of the program are now parents themselves.
The work of the CHP is rewarding on any number of levels, not the least being playing a role in the Great Commission.
“We are all called as believers to the Great Commission,” Bonsall said. “Children are very close to the Lord. Just being able to work with these special needs kids and know at the same time that you are doing kingdom work. And that you are doing your part to help fulfill the Great Commission, that is so rewarding.”
Learn more at www.samaritan.org.
— by Scott Noble