Indy Doctors Think Beyond Borders

A charitable program at St. Vincent leads to record-breaking surgeries.
These are the rehearsed talking points Dr. Simon Abraham rattles off quickly: In October of last year, he completed his 100th and 101st international charity surgeries at St. Vincent Hospital Indianapolis—that’s more than any other doctor in the country. He’s been performing these pro bono services since St. Vincent founded the International Pediatric Heart Surgery Project in 2000 to save kids in impoverished nations. He even decided to join the hospital because they had the budget—so far, $7 million—for the altruistic program. Abraham’s voice lightens, though, as the conversation winds its way to his favorite part of this volunteer work: the children.
Take a couple of his latest surgeries: Two pediatric patients from Mongolia, both suffering from congenital heart defects, were flown in by partnering organization Samaritan’s Purse, placed with a host family—who typically open up their homes for four to six weeks, depending on the severity of the child’s condition and any necessary pre- or post-op care—and treated for free by Abraham and other medical staff at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. In the case of the Mongolian children, the host family took on five people: two patients, their mothers, and one busy translator. Abraham starts to speak, then stops. A small laugh escapes. “I think for people who have had a lot of kids, or don’t mind a bit of chaos, [the arrangement] works really well,” he says.

“We’ve done a hundred surgeries,” says Dr. Abraham of his pro bono work. “I just wish we had the budget to do a hundred more.”

Abraham performs all of his charity surgeries here in Indy to keep patients near technology not readily available in their home countries, but his cases come from all over the world. Recently, some former patients from Kosovo sent him friend requests on Facebook. “One of the little girls, a very pretty 15- or 16-year-old now, was about 3 years old when I saw her at St. Vincent,” says Abraham. “I have a picture of her holding her mom’s hand, and she’s up to somebody’s knee. Now she’s 16 and on Facebook!”
That’s exactly why he donates his skills: to provide long-lasting life to children, an opportunity Abraham himself was afforded when, at 5 years old, he was hospitalized for a kidney condition in his native India. That ordeal, he says, allows him to interact with his patients from a place of understanding. “Children are not small adults,” he says. “The childhood experience is fundamentally different.”
Now Abraham is preparing for his 105th charity surgery, but he doesn’t sound satisfied. “We’ve done a hundred surgeries,” he says. “I just wish we had the budget to do a hundred more.”
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue.