A visit to his father’s homeland of Peru led Juan Alejos to found a nonprofit that provides medical, dental, and humanitarian assistance to children with congenital heart disease in underserved parts of the world.
Juan Alejos (M.D. 1987) and those he has recruited to his nonprofit organization's medical missions have performed more than 200 surgeries, some 500 catheterization procedures, and several thousand echocardiograms. Yet he remembers some of the children individually and with great clarity.
Several years ago in Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru, a baby boy was brought in on the first week of Alejos' visit with the nonprofit he founded, Hearts With Hope. The boy needed surgery for a birth defect in his heart, in which oxygen-rich blood did not return from the lungs to the left atrium. The baby came in with a bacterial illness and was treated with antibiotics.
Ideally, he would have fully recovered before surgery was performed. But nothing about the conditions were ideal; there was nobody locally who could perform the procedure, and Alejos and his team were leaving the following week. "We saw that he was doing better the next week, and we took a leap of faith," Alejos recalls. The alternative, he knew, was that the boy could die.
The surgery — a total anomalous pulmonary venous return — was a success. The baby was healthy. More than that, he was given a chance at life.
That is the kind of case that inspired Alejos to do this work. He visited Peru, where his father studied medicine, after the elder Alejos died in the 1990s. He met with the medical director of the only children's hospital in Peru, and he offered to return to give lectures. The medical director had other ideas; she told Alejos, "instead of giving lectures, we would much rather have you show us what we can do."
So began his first missions to Peru with other cardiologists and surgeons. It was suggested to him that he should create a 501(c)(3) in order to raise money, which led to him founding Hearts With Hope in 2006. Now the medical director of the Pediatric Heart Transplant/Cardiomyopathy Program at Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alejos has gone on more than 20 missions; most have been in Peru, while others have taken his ever-evolving teams to Honduras, Ethiopia, and beyond.
Colleagues from UCLA (which is not affiliated with Hearts With Hope) have joined him on some missions, as have health care providers and others from as far away as Spain and Croatia. They all work together with the local providers, which allows the locals to learn how to perform some procedures once Hearts With Hope has left.
"We work with them," says Alejos, who also is the president of the board of the Michigan Medicine Alumni Society, and whose daughter, Alexandra Alejos, graduated from U-M Medical School in 2018. "We found that the best way to do it is to integrate ourselves and not just take over."
"We went there thinking we had all the answers, but we really learn a lot from them as well," Alejos says. "They make the most of every piece of equipment. They had a better way to stop the heart during surgery." And when someone is having surgery, family members have to race to find donors with the same blood type since there are no blood banks. This extraordinary bit of resourcefulness, he says, has inspired him and his fellow volunteers.