Rotarians’ partnership brings lifesaving equipment to hospital in Latvia

RIGA, Latvia — Some of the babies weigh 1,000 grams, some less. They’re so tiny they can fit easily in the palm of your hand.

A few years ago, many would not survive in the preemie ward at Riga Childcare Hospital Neonatology Clinic. The doctors here are excellent; the nurses, too, well-trained and offering the most watchful care these infants need to survive. But without high-tech, lifesaving equipment, premature babies and those born with diseases like congestive heart failure would have had difficulty surviving.

The Riga clinic found a friend in the local Rotary clubs, which reached out to Rotary International and partnered with Club 29 in Oklahoma City and clubs in Sweden and Hungary to buy machines to assess oxygenation of tissue and to provide early detection of diseases and the need of urgent therapy.

That’s a need and worry businessman Janis Verlis remembers well. The birthrate in Latvia is low — not unlike its Baltic neighbors or some European Union countries — averaging 20,000 per year, with 6 percent preterm. The Riga clinic is where babies in crisis are sent from all over the country. It treats an average 800 newborns every year. Of those, 350 are prematurely born and about 45 are smaller than 450 grams.

So when Verlis’ granddaughter, Esther — now 5 years old — was born 25 weeks early, his family feared she wouldn’t survive. She weighed 820 grams, or 1.8 pounds, to a healthy mother and no apparent medical condition with mother or child.

“Five years ago, we didn’t know that people like you would reach out to help provide equipment to help babies like my Esther,” he said at a joint Rotary meeting between the Riga clubs and representatives from Sweden and Oklahoma City’s Club 29. “Now she’s doing well. We were lucky.”

For about a year, Club 29’s Mary Jane Calvey and Bob Medley worked closely with Inese Priedniece of the Riga Rotary Club to make sure translation in the grant request was clear and accurate.

Oklahoma City contributed $2,500 to the $51,964 project in a partnership that included Rotary Club Riga, Riga Ridzene, Sweden’s Degafors and Karlsgoda Nobel and Budapest City (Hungary) Rotary Club — with matching funds from Rotary International.

“It was impressive to see the Rotary-provided monitors and equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital,” Club 29’s Rotarian Martin O’Gwynn said. “Their work is similar to what we find at The Children’s Hospital (at OU Medical Center), in that miracles happen daily. For our Oklahoma City club to have played a role in providing those resources for people eight time zones away was a strong testimony to global cooperation and how so much more can be accomplished when people work together.”

A dedication ceremony in the summer brought together representatives from the partnering clubs to Riga at the joint meeting where members talked passionately about global corporation as a way to solve problems.

A doctor who formerly worked under the Soviet regime said if politicians adopt the Rotary model of cooperation, there will be more successful agreements between countries.

Being a Rotarian

Each week around the world, business, civic and political leaders and others gather around a meal for Rotary club meetings. The largest of those clubs, some 600 members and growing, is Club 29, which meets weekly at the Petroleum Club in downtown Oklahoma City. Members hear presentations on issues from leaders in various industries and organizations. Occasionally, even the governor takes the podium.

It’s a group rooted in the motto “service above self,” raising money for teachers to spend on miscellaneous expenses, for the families of servicemen and servicewomen at Tinker Air Force Base and providing dictionaries for third-graders in Oklahoma City schools, among other things.

And as part of Rotary’s Global Grants program, Club 29 has contributed to projects that include helping scabies eradication in Panama, brickmaking in Uganda, telemedicine equipment to reach remote patients in Columbia, dental surgery in Romania, empowerment of women in Rwanda, auto mechanic classes in Peru and projects in Oklahoma City, including a vision clinic at Crossings Community Church.

But members don’t experience the full impact of those routine weekly meetings until they attend a dedication ceremony.

Medley, District 5750 chairman of Rotary’s international grants program, said members who attend project dedications return “with a new appreciation of both how fortunate we are to be in our community and how similar those we visit are to the friends and neighbors we live around.”

“Our primary goal, for being involved in Global Grants, is to develop a relationship with Rotarians around the world as we help fund and execute a humanitarian activity,” Medley said. “We can talk about good works and show videos all day long, but there is no better way for Rotarians to see and feel the impact we make each time we participate than to actually be there and see it up close and personal.”

And the beneficiaries of Rotary’s Global Grants also are forever changed by the generosity of strangers from around the world.

“These units also greatly helped Esther,” her mother Elina Verle said in an email. “We were fearful about how she will be able to breathe independently. But thanks to medical apparatus, and of course the great staff, Esther spent three months in hospital. As you know, now she is a very active, smart and healthy girl.”

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