Finding a little piece of the UAE in a Washington hospital

A $150m donation from Abu Dhabi to a children's hospital in Washington, DC is helping to save the lives of dozens of young Emiratis, while also training some of the newest UAE medical graduates
By Ola Salem in Washington, DC
Thu 21 Sep 2017 09:00 AM

For Emiratis, a familiar name slowly appears while riding the escalator up to the lobby of the biggest children’s hospital in the US capital, Washington, DC. A large sign that reads ‘Sheikh Zayed Campus’ is mounted on the wall just under the hospital’s name — Children’s National Medical Centre.

When worried Emirati father Abu Abdullah entered the hospital with his sick son years ago, seeing the name of his country’s founding father provided comfort.

“I felt like I was home,” he says. “It was a great support for me.”

The Abu Dhabi government donated $150m to the Children’s National in 2009 to provide the hospital with the much-needed financial drive to continue its groundbreaking paediatric work. With the money, the hospital established the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, which aims to develop more precise and less invasive treatment for children.

Children’s National CEO Kurt Newman named the centre in honour of the UAE gift. Today, the Sheikh Zayed name and portraits of the late founding father and present UAE rulers can be seen throughout the hospital.

Abdullah believes this is a source of “huge pride for our country”. Hailing from Abu Dhabi, he first attended Children’s National in 2013 after his three-year-old son received a heart-rendering diagnosis: he would need a new heart valve.

They returned again recently for a similar procedure. Fortunately, both operations have been successful.

Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation has four major clinical themes: pediatric pain and anesthesia, immunology, bioengineering and systems biology.

Abdullah’s son is one of 60-80 Emirati children who have been treated at the hospital in the past year alone. They are usually sent to the hospital by the UAE’s Ministry of Health or the Health Authority — Abu Dhabi (HAAD) after being referred by a UAE-based physician. The ministry and HAAD also work with the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC to handle cases as soon as they arrive in the US.

But treating Emirati patients is not the only collaboration between the hospital and the UAE. The institution also dedicates four training positions to Emirati physicians during their clinical and trial rotations. Each year, it also hosts a number of Emirati students from UAE University, Higher Colleges of Technology and Khalifa University for work experience.

One collaborative research project involves developing technology that examines facial features of newborns to evaluate potential genetic conditions. With this facial analysis technology, doctors are able to snap a photo of a newborn in the UAE and send it to the institute in Washington, DC, where hundreds of biometric patterns on the babies’ faces are analysed. More than 1,000 newborns in the Northern Emirates have been tested.

The study, conducted in coordination with Al Qassimi Hospital, Sharjah, and Al Fujairah Hospital in the UAE and Children’s National in Washington, was led by the institute’s principal investigator, Dr Marius Linguraru. He is due to present his findings in September at the World Pediatric Congress in Dubai.

“Why is this important? In the US, one in 150 newborns has a genetic disorder,” Dr Linguraru says. “In the UAE, the number is much higher. For example, Down syndrome effects one in 690 in the US. In the UAE, it’s one in 315.”

The facial analysis will help ensure newborns at risk of genetic conditions are referred to a geneticist, he says.

Dr Peter Kim, vice president of the institute, says paediatric devices and innovations lag ten years behind those used for adults. Paediatricians struggle, he says, when it comes to treating their patients because instruments and techniques have to be modified so they can be used on children because there is an absence of child-specific instruments. With the UAE’s financial support, however, the institute has been working hard to close that gap.

“The biggest cause of death is cancer and heart disease, so big companies are simply uninterested [in paediatric surgery],” Dr Kim says. “Even though 25 percent of the population are children.

“Also, when it comes to testing, they think twice about testing on children. That creates more challenges.”

The long-term benefits of a healthy child are usually overshadowed by an investor’s worry of high costs, he says. “Paediatric devices are profitable, but not profitable enough. Costs are scaring off investors.”

By treating Emirati patients and giving the UAE full access to expertise as well as offering training to UAE medical students, Children’s National hopes to help the UAE achieve the medical goals the government has set.

Warren Whitehead, vice president of global services for the entire Children’s National Health System, the network that owns the Washington, DC centre, says that the Sheikh Zayed Institute’s partnership with the UAE is at the “highest levels”.

“We are helping them build their infrastructure so that more things can be delivered in the UAE clinically,” Whitehead says. “I think this is a goal for the government: self-efficiency.”

Easing a heartbreak

How the UAE’s collaboration with a US hospital has helped to save the life of a young Emirati boy.

Seven-year-old Abdullah was born in 2010 with a heart defect. Three open-heart surgeries later, Abdullah dreams of becoming a heart surgeon.

His father, who prefers to go by the name Abu Abdullah, says his son’s love for surgery came from the support he has had from his doctors and medical staff. “Abdullah, since birth, has been in hospitals,” he says.

With the help of the UAE, their trips abroad for medical care have been made easier with both financial and emotional support. In 2013, when Abdullah was three, his parents made their first trip to DC. There they were met at the airport by hospital staff and UAE Embassy officials.

The Heart Institute at Children’s National treats thousands of youth and young adults each year.

They were housed near the hospital and given a translator as well as a case-study officer from the hospital to assist them.

The hospital also made a point to make sure Abdullah went into the operating room with a smile on his face. In a picture drawn by his doctors and nurses, they included two of Abdullah’s favourite things: Spider-Man and cars.

“They wanted to make sure he was smiling. They helped ease our pain,” Abu Abdullah says.

“They took good care of him, and they always made sure we were comfortable.”

Now that Abdullah is up on his feet and running through the hospital corridors, he cannot wait to go home.

While happy with the care his son received at Children’s National Medical Centre, Abu Abdullah hopes all UAE hospitals will one day be equipped with the doctors and equipment necessary to perform similar surgeries back home.

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Last Updated: Thu 21 Sep 2017 09:55 AM GST

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