UNC Hospitals volunteer spearheads effort to treat Afghan girl

Rita Bigham helps Maryam, an eight-year-old Afghan girl with a heart defect, get treatment at UNC Hospitals.

UNC Hospitals volunteer spearheads effort to treat Afghan girl
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Rita Bigham and Maryam at UNC Hospitals.

by Zach Read - zread@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

“Total energy,” Bart Clark says when describing longtime UNC Hospitals volunteer Rita Bigham. “She goes out and gets things done.”

And Clark would know. As director of the Southern Pines branch of the Mooresville-based, national not-for-profit organization, Solace for the Children, Clark has relied on Bigham to help eight-year-old Maryam, an Afghan girl with a heart defect, receive treatment at UNC Hospitals.

Maryam arrived last month and has undergone two procedures on her heart, performed by pediatric cardiologist Dr. Elman Frantz and pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Michael Mill. The procedures are expected to save her life.

But Maryam’s trip to North Carolina almost never happened. In most cases, Solace raises money to cover the travel costs of the young patient and his or her interpreter so that treatment can be given in the United States. The care is provided pro bono by the selected hospital. But as a state facility, UNC Hospitals cannot offer pro bono care, so Bigham footed the bill herself.

“Rita was willing to pay for Maryam’s surgery, and that’s unusual for us,” says Clark. “We can’t afford those costs in our budget, but thanks to Rita, all we’ve had to do is find the host family and the interpreter — and Rita has even helped coordinate additional interpreters.”

Bigham learned at an early age that a person’s actions reveal the values he or she holds dear—a belief taught to her by her parents. For 16 years she has acted on her values through her volunteer work at UNC Hospitals. She has delivered magazines and books to patients, read to children, and spread good cheer among those who need it most. She has even trained her dog, Pippin, for therapy purposes, bringing him with her to the Children’s Hospital and the Cancer Hospital, as well as to the eating disorder unit and adult rehabilitation. All together Bigham has accrued roughly 1,800 hours of volunteer service.

And while her love for Pippin shines through when she talks about him, it’s her dedication to children that brought her to Solace. A retired fifth grade teacher at Carrboro Elementary, Bigham has always had a special place in her heart for young people. So when she learned about Solace, which helps provide medical care for Afghan children in need, her commitments to children and volunteering converged, and she immediately wanted to help.

Bigham recalls the time three and a half years ago when Patsy Wilson, the national head of Solace, came to University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill. With her were two children from Afghanistan and their interpreter.

“I was so drawn to those children, and as I got to learn more about the organization, I began volunteering and eventually paying for two or three children to come over every year,” says Bigham.

Two years ago Bigham helped a boy named Sher Jan get to the United States, where he was to receive treatment for his clubfeet. When Sher Jan arrived, the doctors detected a heart problem. The boy received heart surgery in Columbus, Ohio, and returned to UNC for his orthopedic surgery. Bigham’s goal for Maryam was for her to receive treatment at UNC.

“I’ve known Dr. Cam Patterson, Chief of Cardiology, as my cardiologist,” says Bigham. “And having volunteered here for so long and visited the Children’s Hospital so much, I said, ‘You know, we have a wonderful children’s hospital and Dr. Patterson is the head of Cardiology—can’t we do something to get some of these children with major heart problems from Afghanistan to here?’ So that’s when we started this.”

The financial challenges of obtaining care for Maryam weren’t immediately known to Bigham. In fact, she didn’t find out about the challenges associated with working through a state facility until last November, when she’d already set the paperwork in motion at UNC.

“We didn’t know that even though the doctors would be willing to do the work, UNC would have to charge,” says Bigham.

So Bigham and her husband, Eric, set up a fund through the Medical Foundation of North Carolina.

“The fund had to be started with a certain amount so that if Maryam needed open heart surgery, there would be enough to cover it,” says Bigham.

The Rita and Eric Bigham Cardiology Special Project Fund covered the entire cost of Maryam’s care while at UNC Hospitals. Leftover funds and future donations will go toward the care of other economically disadvantaged children treated at UNC Hospitals.

Brock Matthews, of the Medical Foundation, has worked closely with the Bighams on their fund and has been inspired by Rita Bigham’s dedication to Maryam and Solace.

“Rita goes far above and beyond being a donor,” says Matthews. “She has attended every medical appointment with Maryam and has been engaged with Maryam’s host family and other Solace for the Children volunteers.”

Bart Clark, of the Southern Pines branch, has been so pleased with Bigham’s efforts that he hopes to work with her to help other children.

“When we first started, I thought I’d let Rita run with it and then I’d fill in the cracks,” says Clark. “But there weren’t any cracks. Rita was going to get it done regardless of what obstacles arose….Thanks to Rita, we think that we may have a template for how we do things in the future. UNC has such a great medical community, and we have such compassion for Afghan kids because of our military community--maybe once a year we can bring someone.”

Meanwhile, Bigham will continue to work with Solace in any way that she can to help Maryam and other Afghan children in need, and when she comes to UNC Hospitals to visit patients, she'll have Pippin by her side.

For updates on Maryam’s treatment, click here: http://news.unchealthcare.org/news/2013/june/maryam.

For giving to the Rita and Eric Bigham Cardiology Special Project Fund, visit www.medicalfoundationofnc.org/gift, select “Other” for ‘Designation,’ and enter “Rita and Eric Bigham Cardiology Special Project Fund.”

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