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In Memoriam: Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

May 7, 2016 5 comments

In August it will be three years since the death of my friend and frequent subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, an Omaha native who made a great success for herself in Boston and New York City. Her films won awards and critical kudos. They often played on PBS. She was fascinated by a lot of things but she was particularly attracted to fellow creatives and artists, and thus some of her best known and most seen work explored the inner workings and demons of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cab Calloway, and Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the film that got her the most attention was Making the Misfits,  an examination of that strange, wonderful, and star-struck amalgam of talent on that great American film The Misfits, whose cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. John Huston directed a script written by Arthur Miller. The following piece is something I was commissioned to write about Gail upon her death by her brother and sister in law. They knew of my personal and professional association with her and I was much honored that they would think of me to attempt to do justice to her life and career. We sent this piece to select media, including The New York Times, and the obit writer from The Times did follow up with me to ask me several questions. Some of what I wrote also ended up in an Omaha World-Herald piece. When I think of Gail, I think of high energy and deep passion. She was another of the hundreds of Nebraskans who came out of here to do great things in film. Her brother David and I have become friends and we have tried, so far without success, to interest local organizations in supporting a tribute program to Gail and her work. She left behind an immense and important archival collection of correspondence, photographs, tapes, scripts, and notes related to completed and unfinished work. She interviewed and corresponded with dozens of great artists over a four decade period. We do hope the materials find a good home and that her work can be remembered via an exhibition and/or repertory series.

On my blog, http://www.leoadambiga.com, you can search for additional stories I wrote about Gail and her work.

 

Gail Levin

 

In Memoriam

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

Omaha Children’s Museum all grown up at 40: Celebrating four decades of letting children’s imagination run free

May 7, 2016 1 comment

In 30-plus years of writing about Omaha arts, entertainment, and culture there are very few attractions I have not done a piece on. In some cases I have written multiple stories related to the same venue. An exception to all this was the Omaha Children’s Museum. Our paths simply hadn’t crossed in all that time, though I do remember going there during my early journalism career. Just can’t remember why. But I sure don’t recall writing about it. With this Metro Magazine story about that venue, which celebrates 40 years in 2016, i can cross another one off the list. The museum got off to a very entrepreneurial but humble start and it seemed to plateau several years ago until a reinvestment was made that’s been the catalyst for a resurgence that has seen attendance steadily rise and programming and exhibits progressively increase. Now the museum is running out of space and looking at options to accommodate its current bursting at the seams activity and expected additional growth. The future looks bright and busy and the musuem is deciding whether to expand at its present downtown site or two look at either retrofitting another site, preferably downtown, or building a new museum from the ground up. My story looks back at the museum’s history, charts its growth, and looks ahead to the future.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine and my story at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

Omaha Children’s Museum all grown up at 40: Celebrating four decades of letting children’s imagination run free 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine–(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

This summer Omaha Children’s Museum joins select local attractions boasting 40 years in operation. With 300,000 annual visitors and 10,000 memberships, OCM is enjoying its greatest growth phase now.

Founder Karen Levin suggests why OCM’s proving so popular.

“It’s a very different breed. It’s where people come to play. There’s no expectations, there’s no right or wrong. Interactive learning, sharing and socialization is the theme. What you put into the experience you get out of it. It’s a very multifaceted experience.”

The two women most closely identified with the institution, Levin, and current Executive Director Lindy Hoyer, never expected to run a children’s organization.

Levin was bound for a social work career when she visited the Boston Children’s Museum in 1973. Her “visceral response” led her to work there. That experience inspired her to pursue a children’s museum in Omaha after moving here in 1975.

“It changed my life. It ended up defining my life. It became my passion. It is still my passion.”

 

Image result for karen levin omaha

Karen Levin

 

She cultivated folks who caught her vision and together they opened OCM as a mobile museum in 1976. Levin says the late Evie Zysman, a social worker and early childhood education advocate, led her to key supporters, including Jane Ford. The late Susan Thompson Buffett gave seed money and recommended attorney David Karnes, who legally incorporated OCM and became an ardent supporter with his late wife Liz. Their garage served as its storage unit and their ’74 Oldsmobile station wagon carted exhibits and supplies.

“I also did much of the corporate fundraising as we got started,” recalls Karnes. “We needed to introduce the OCM story and dream to all that would listen and it was a story many loved to hear and eventually supported,”

 

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David Karnes

 

He and other early board members Susan Lebens, Jim Leuschen and John Birge were raising families and they bonded over developing a stimulating environment for their kids as well as kids community-wide.

Karnes was drawn to supporting a place where children could explore, touch, dress up, play in unstructured ways and be “in charge.” The Karnes brought their four daughters, all of whom he says “have a warm spot in their hearts for the museum and know how much it meant to me and Liz and how hard we worked to make it a success.” Those daughters live elsewhere now but “when they return with my grandkids,” he says. “they love to visit OCM.”

OCM’s old enough now that multiple generations enjoy it. Now remarried, Karnes is a parent again and he says his two new daughters “love the museum and visit often” with he and wife Kristine.

As a new grandparent, Susan Lebens is thrilled to be “back” at the museum.

John Birge, a principal architect with RNG, has fond memories of taking his then-young children to the museum and now that his kids are parents themselves he enjoys taking his grandchildren there.

 

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John Birge

 

“It’s just like de jeu watching my four grandchildren working their way through that whole building and listening them talk about all the experiences and what they like doing there,” Birge says. “It’s one generation later, but it’s the same idea.”

Board chairman Trent Demulling says, “It is the one place I go with my kids I’m never looking at my cellphone because it’s so fun to watch them play. They’re always looking back to see what you’re observing and looking for validation of what they’re doing or of what they’ve built.”

Veteran board member Sandy Parker says, “OCM was the place my boys could explore, get messy, imitate, imagine, inquire, play and just be kids. The boys and I used the museum a lot when they were young. I became president of the Guild  in the early ’90s, went on the Governing Board after that and have been on the board ever since. I’ve chaired the For the Kids Benefit and assisted in a couple of capital campaigns. Back in the day when there wasn’t much money Guild members would volunteer their time helping make and paint exhibits. We brought our kids. We all became friends – the moms and the kids.”

Birge says the museum’s been “a catalyst for bringing young professionals into community leadership roles,” adding, “We were all together helping build this idea of a museum and we all went on to be very successful in doing cool things in Omaha in nontraditional ways.”

He says everybody involved wanted the museum to be world-class.

“We were a bunch of people who said, ‘We can do this.’ We kept getting great leadership in terms of board members as well as paid staff who were going to make it the biggest and best thing it could be.”

He’s proud OCM’s intertwined in “the fabric of the community.”

His daughter Alexis Boulos carries on family tradition as a volunteer (with the Guild) and engaged parent.

“I not only enjoyed the museum as a child I watched my parents volunteer their time and talents and now it’s so rewarding to give back myself and to watch my kids develop their creativity there.”

Dad and daughter marvel at how robust OCM is today. None of it could have happened without its founder. “Karen Levin was relentless in pushing that vision and she was not going to let go,” Birge says.

Monies that secured OCM’s initial footing came from the Dayton Hudson Foundation, whose grant helped pay for the first programs and exhibits. A  CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) grant paid for staff.

OCM went from itinerant displays in shopping malls, libraries, schools and at events to renting a small, makeshift space in the Omaha-Douglas County “connector” building. Then it moved to larger, repurposed  digs at 18th and St. Mary before occupying its present site, 500 South 20th Street, in the old McFadden Ford auto dealership.

 

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Lindy Hoyer

 

A decade after the museum formed Lindy Hoyer was a recent college graduate looking to apply her theater degree to a stage career when she took a job at OCM. Hired as a secretary, her skills proved better suited to facilitating play with kids in the exhibits area.

“My whole life I’ve been drawn to children and when I got the chance to see children engage and interact at the museum i just knew this is my passion,” says Hoyer, who found OCM a great place to grow herself professionally. “This organization was so young and fledgling that there were lots of new things to do and take charge of.”

After eight years she left for the Lincoln (Neb.) Children’s Museum before retuning in 2002. She found OCM in a state of physical fatigue.

“We had to make really tough decisions. Even though the audience grows up and grows out and there’s a new audience coming in every eight years, you have to keep the exhibits fresh. So often children’s museums get exhibits built and then the resources to replenish those over time never get accumulated and so things get worn down, broken

and over time that shows. The place was suffering desperately from that when I started back in 2002. We did some things to replenish,

but we were starting to get there again.”

Since making upgrades, targeting early childhood audiences and working with community partners to build exhibits OCM’s enjoyed an unbroken rise in attendance. The first of the community themed and sponsored exhibits, Construction Zone, in partnership with Kiewit, was a huge hit. Next came The Big Backyard and a slew of permanent displays by First National Bank. Walker Tire and Auto, Hy Vee. Omaha Steaks and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

Community and traveling exhibits, plus educational programs make OCM a thriving, financially stable destination place with huge buy-in.

“It’s nice to be running a nonprofit organization in a community where we can be bold and daring within the context of a strategy and a mission and work that backs that up,” Hoyer says. “We understand our audience and we listen to them and we take what they say seriously.”

Levin admires how far OCM’s come.

“We built a very strong foundation and then it just kind of blossomed. I think the community has always embraced the museum. Everyone owns it. Parents seek it out. It belongs to Omaha.”

She credits the leadership of Hoyer, the board and a staff that is “engaged, active, smart” for creating such a strong operation.

But OCM has challenges. Its landlocked downtown home is woefully short on office, storage and parking space. It also faces millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. Meanwhile, more visitors pour in.

Board chair Trent Demulling says for a recent master planning process “we evaluated what the museum could be and we did not constrain ourselves in dreaming big.” He adds, “Now we have to align that with reality in terms of what funding is available.”

He and Hoyer say everything’s on the table – from expanding the present facility to finding a larger existing structure to building anew.

“I think management, the board and community leaders really need to think about what is Omaha willing to invest in the Omaha Children’s Museum,” Demulling says, “and what are the things we can get done in order to serve more people to give them an even better experience.”

Until a plan is finalized, OCM will continue stimulating children’s tactile senses and imagination in the same digs it’s occupied since 1989. Meanwhile, OCM celebrates 40 years of congaing minds and bodies.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Omaha Children’s Museum,” says Hoyer. “The next step isn’t determined yet, but I know as long as we stay true to our mission to engage the imagination and spark excitement for learning, it’s going to be the right one. Whatever happens next will benefit generations to come.”

Visit http://www.ocm.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Children’s Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico


It seeems as though every year or so now I get an assignment to write about a medical mission team from Omaha that travels beyond borders to deliver care. In this Journeys story for Metro Magazine I write about the trips led by Dr. James Hammel and his team to the peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California and the city of La Paz, where life saving operations are done on infants and toddlers.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine, including my story, at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

 

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Childrens Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

The peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California is a tourist draw for its ocean-front beaches and vistas. But isolation from the Mexican mainland makes it hard for residents to access specialized medical care. Poor residents lack the means to travel, much less afford treatment. A lack of pediatric heart services results in many congenital defects going unevaluated and undiagnosed. Consequently, many children die before getting an opportunity to be treated.

To bridge that care gap Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. James Hammel twice a year leads a medical mission trip to the southern city of La Paz in that Mexican state. He and his all Children’s Hospital & Medical Center team were there in November and they’re back again this April.

Before starting the La Paz trips four years ago, Hammel was a veteran of medical missions to Honduras and Nicaragua. His work in Mexico grew out of a collaborative with a Sioux Falls, S.D. health center that received children cancer patients from Big Sur through the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation based on the peninsula. Foundation founder Tom Walsh is from South Dakota. Children sent to Sioux Falls who presented heart problems then came to Omaha for treatment.

When a boy named Mario died before ever making it to a Chidlren’s operating room, Hammel resolved to provide care in Southern Baja in order to circumvent the delays that result in such needless tragedy.

 

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.” – Dr. James Hammel

 

“It was obvious to me he’d been turned away again and again and again,” Hammel says. “His mother was very sweet and she had taken him repeatedly across to the mainland and sort of begged for surgery from one of the centers there. But they just couldn’t get it. That case firmly cemented my commitment to this charitable foundation and when the opportunity did arise to work down there that seemed like a lot better option than bringing people up.

“Bringing kids up is very expensive, cumbersome, difficult. It takes a long time and it’s only possible to do in very small numbers. I thought. Well, for the same amount of money we could treat a dozen children there by bringing our team down.”

Hammel leads some 20 medical professionals, most specializing in critical care, on each 10-day trip. They’ve instituted many firsts there.

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.”

He brings intensive care doctors, children’s pediatric intensive care nurses, a perfusionist to run the heart-lung bypass pump, cardiac anesthesiologists, operating room nurses and a surgical assistant. Everyone volunteers their time. Their care is entirely free to families.

 

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful. I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.” – Dr. Bridget Norton

 

It’s taken awhile to build trust with local leaders but a permanent program is now in the works.

“Little by little the administration of the hospital we’re working in and the government health ministry and the state government began to take an interest in the possibility of making an ongoing program. That’s when my goals took their last maturational step,” Hammel says. “We’ve been back every six months for a total of six missions and we’ve operated on 68 children – some with simple diseases but some with very complicated heart defects. Mostly they’ve done fine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some children require multiple surgeries.

“My goal is to establish a new cardiac treatment program to be a permanent part of that state’s health care system. In all of Mexico there are about 11 pediatric cardiac surgery programs and eight are located in Mexico City itself, thus the distribution of this resource is really poor and access is really limited. There are probably 18,000 children born in Mexico with heart defects every year and probably only about 3,600 corrective operations and catheter procedures performed. So, nearly 80 percent of the children with heart defects likely die, It’s a really big unmet need in the country.”

His goal is to help the Mexicans “build a viable, self-sustaining program that goes on treating these children when we’re not there and even after we stop coming.” He adds, “We have recruited to the state two pediatric cardiologists, a pediatric intensive care doctor and the first cardiac surgeon in the state. We have trained a group of pediatric intensive care nurses in special techniques for cardiac intensive care nursing. We trained the operating room staff.”

Before it can be self-sustaining, he says a “critical mass of manpower” is needed. Progress to get there is being made.

“It’s a gradual thing. This last summer the program performed its first open heart operation without us being there. They have performed a larger number of non-open heart cardiac cases, simpler cases, so they’re beginning to get going.”

He expects the program to reach a major milestone in 2016.

“When we get the program fully accredited by the Mexican federal government the hospital system can begin to receive some reimbursement for each case they do. It amounts to about $6,000 or $7,000 per case, but we can do it for that. It’s going to take a little more investment for needed supplies before we get to that point.

“In the meantime, we go and we do a dozen cases twice a year and that’s wonderful. It’s a great thing for the children we treat and their families, but it’s not enough. I would estimate there are about 60 children born in this state of Southern Baja a year with critical heart defects who need an operation, so we’re not reaching all of them.”

 

“The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”  – Shannon Hoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s created a nonprofit, Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts, to coordinate the medical care and logistics of the trips. It partners with the Los Cabos foundation. Children’s may soon be formally involved.

“Our hospital administration has seen the positive effect this kind of work has on our staff as far as their resourcefulness, their creativity, their career satisfaction. It’s something that really brings us together

and that has real tangible benefits in terms of our ability to do our job with excellence. I think Children’s is coming to see this work as a two-way street with great benefit to the people there and to our patients and staff here.”

Dr. Bridget Norton, a Specialist in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine, has been on all but one La Paz mission. She says it’s a “team-building” experience for both her and her fellow professionals who go.

“We make relationships and connections and friendships with colleagues we wouldn’t necessarily make without that experience.”

Many things Children’s does in Omaha, such as blood conservation and comfort med administration, have come out of what the team’s learned to improvise with in resource-poor La Paz.

Norton says the trips put in perspective the gifts she and her mates have to give.

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful.

“I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.”

Perfusionist Joe Deptula, who’s made multiple Central American mission trips with Hammel, says the work is about “being able to give back.”

Shannon Hoy, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), has made many mission trips herself. She sums up the La Paz mission as “a great experience,” adding, “The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”

The team can’t forget a patient named Oscar.

“Oscar came to us with a very serious congenital heart defect, which was previously operated on during a different trip,” Hammel says. “Due to his age and heart defects, his heart had sustained a lot of wear and tear and we were unsure how well he would do despite the repair.”

When the team left for home his vitals looked good. Then a fire in the unit forced a patient evacuation. His lines were cut and he expired off the meds. News of his death hit the team hard as he’d twice beat the odds only to lose his life anyway.

Most operations are scheduled in advance but families often show up unexpectedly with a sick child. The parents of a 6-month-old named Derek drove hours to reach La Paz, where the team found the baby so fragile they simply admitted him for observation without a single line or anything started lest the trauma prove too much. The boy’s surgery the next morning went well and today he’s totally repaired and healthy.

The life-and-death surgeries and the intense emotions take their toll.

“You are exhausted and not just physically,” Norton says. “It’s hard work and we work long hours. We do overnights in the hospital. But it’s also emotionally draining. You just have a lot of feelings and emotions you work through.”

Once back home, some decompression is necessary. Thoughts of La Paz, however, are never far from Children’s team members’ minds. Not only do patients and families leave an imprint, but so do staff.

“We’re like family,” Norton says of her team and the Mexican team they work alongside. Collaboration is vital to the program’s success. “They’ve been amazing and are on-board with the mission. We really couldn’t do anything we do without them – all the support services they provide, the hoops they jump through, taking care of the equipment we leave down there. Any blip that comes up, they handle it.”

Los Cabos foundation former executive director Greg Edwards now heads Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts with Dr. Hammel. He says building the program has inherently high stakes and complexities because it’s critical care. Since that care is largely delivered by Omaha specialists, much coordination and navigation is required. These specialists not only practice their healing arts in La Paz but impart expertise there. Locals also travel to Omaha for training.

“The support of Dr. Hammel’s team and friendships that exist at Children’s has been essential for this to happen,” Edwards says. “You cannot have a cardiac program without intensive care. Building a pediatric cardiac care program is no small task. It has meant creating relationships with Mexican officials. recruiting qualified staff, turning the surgeries into not only life-saving operations but a training theater for the local Mexican medical staff, creating a pipeline for medical supplies needed for the surgeries and intensive care from Omaha to Baja.

“It really is a huge undertaking.”

Abriendo Corazones accepts donations to support its efforts at strengthening hearts. Contact Dr. Hammel at 402-955-4360.

For more on the trips, visit http://www.loscaboschildren.org/donate/.

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