How many undergraduates can say they spent their summer helping to save lives? That’s exactly what University of Memphis women’s soccer player Sessen Stevens did earlier this summer when she volunteered with the International Children’s Heart Foundation (ICHF).
The ICHF is a non-profit organization based out of Memphis that enables children from all over the world to have free heart surgeries. The foundation specifically focuses on congenital heart disease in children with the hopes of permanently ending the disease.
In May, Stevens traveled to the Dominican Republic for a two-week medical mission. She joined volunteers from all over the world to work together with local hospital staff to teach and improve the medical environment. In addition to the Dominican Republic, the ICHF also organizes trips to Libya, Croatia, Ukraine, Iraq and other developing countries.
“I had no idea what to expect going into the trip, but almost immediately I was blown away by the environment,” said Stevens. “It was fascinating to see the interactions between the ICHF staff and the local nurses and doctors, all working to save the lives of the children with heart conditions. The patience that the volunteers had when teaching the locals was admirable, and by the end of the two weeks, the local staff had begun to do more and more of what they had been taught.”
As an undergraduate student, she left with a far greater understanding of procedures, defects, anatomy, and different components of surgery. She was also given the unique experience of seeing a beating heart, something that can only be experienced in a real medical environment.
Stevens learned about the many heart defects that were being operated on in the Dominican Republic, the most common of which was repairing a hole between the right and left ventricles or atriums of the heart, known as septum defect. Without these surgeries, many of the children are unable to play sports or go to school.
“As a rising senior with a Biology and Chemistry major, I knew I was lacking the medical experience to aid in the surgeries or in the ICU; however, being able to help in the logistics and behind the scenes of it all increased my awareness and appreciation for organizations like these. All the volunteers take time off from their paid work schedules in order to help children who, without the team, would never have had the opportunity for a surgery,” said Stevens.
Supplies, volunteers, and trips are provided through donations in order to give hospitals the care they need. ICHF has been in operation for 23 years and has gifted almost 8,000 children heart surgeries, or approximately 350 free surgeries a year for the past 23 years.
“One of the most impactful parts of the trip for me was when I interviewed the kids and their parents before and after surgery. It was clear how life-changing the operations were for the children and how much of an impact it would have on their future. Seeing them overcome the challenges post-op, watching the parents and nurses celebrate each step with them, then watching their smiling faces leave with their families after they recovered are definitely things I will always remember.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity that was provided and the ability to go on the trip as an undergrad student. The trip not only solidified my desire to work overseas in medicine in the future, but also allowed me to see all the different aspects that go into medical missions.”
The moment that University of Memphis student-athletes step on campus, they are encouraged to begin thinking about their interests and skills and build on those qualities to guide them through the following years. Stevens’ medical mission is an example of the types of opportunities that Memphis can provide to its student-athletes.
“The great thing about Memphis is there are so many different organizations and places to get involved around the city. As student-athletes it can be tough to find time to volunteer, but the impact that an hour or two can make not only changes your perspective, but encourages others as well.”