LIJ welcomes girl, 3, for open-heart surgery

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When Karla Maria Sanchez Magana, 3, arrived in the United States last month, her fingertips, feet and lips were black, the whites of her eyes were blue and she could not walk.

Now, as she returns to her native El Salvador, she is learning to walk again and is able to amble about without help.

Karla suffers from a combination of congenital heart defects, and she was brought to Queens to undergo a life-saving surgery at Long Island Jewish Hospital. Karla’s surgery was sponsored through the Rotary Club’s Gift of Life Program, which brings foreign-born children afflicted with heart disorders to America to receive the medical treatment they need, said Frank Macchio, president of the Gift of Life Inc.

Karla underwent surgery in mid-May at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park to increase the oxygenation of her blood, said Vincent Parnell, the chief of pediatric cardiac surgery and Karla’s doctor. Karla was clinging to life with only 30 to 40 percent of normal blood oxygenation, but after the surgery her oxygen levels were more than 80 percent, he said.

“There was no medical reason for her to be alive,” said Elliot Liebner, president of the Rotary Club of Oceanside, district number 7250, which includes Queens, and sponsored Karla’s surgery. “She didn’t look like she was alive.”

The open-heart surgery was completed to address two problems in Karla’s heart to get more oxygen to her blood, Parnell said at a news conference at Ronald McDonald House in New Hyde Park.

Karla’s heart has only three chambers rather than the normal four. Usually, the heart is split into two sides, one to take in blood from the body, and the other to pump out the blood, which has been refreshed with oxygen from the lungs. In Karla’s case, the bad blood coming from the body was being mixed in both sides, Parnell said.

Karla also had a blockage in one of the connections between her heart and her lungs, he said.

To improve her blood oxygen levels, Parnell took two connections to her heart and attached them to the artery attached to her lungs, he said. The new setup sends the blood straight to the lungs and then the heart, rather than the other way around, Parnell said.

“This is a very effective fix to this particular problem,” he said. “It will give her a markedly improved source of oxygen to her blood.”

By using Karla’s veins rather than synthetic materials, the new connections will grow with the girl, and she will not have to get them replaced as she grows, Parnell said. But Karla will have to come back to Queens for a second surgery in about two years to add new connections to her lungs, which will give her close to 100 percent oxygenation, he said.

The second surgery will also be sponsored by the Rotary Club’s Gift of Life, Liebner said. The club sponsors 70 to 80 children a year in the New York metropolitan area through the Gift of Life program. Through partnerships with hospitals like LIJ and doctors like Parnell, the children’s surgeries cost only $5,000, which is paid by the Rotary club, Liebner said.

Similar surgeries could cost more than $50,000, said Frank Macchio, president of the Gift of Life program.

“You can’t get that bargain anywhere,” Liebner said.

The program was started 27 years ago on Long Island and has expanded to host children at more than 40 hospitals in the country. The children are brought to the United States to receive the superior medical care, particularly the recovery services hey cannot get in their home countries, Liebner said.

“It’s not the knowledge of surgery that they’re lacking,” he said about medical services in third world countries. “It’s the possibility of staph infections after the surgery.”

Aside from helping the children, the Rotary Club is hoping to help spread its mission of peace, said Macchio and Liebner.

“The children come here, maybe from countries that don’t like the United States and learn a little about the United States,” Liebner said. “They’re going to remember that for the rest of their lives,”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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