Local resident leads organization to save children’s lives


By Gina McGalliard

In most impoverished countries, a child in need of life-saving heart surgery only has hope of receiving it if the child’s family is wealthy enough to afford it. For the vast majority of children, this is not the case.

Gift of Life International, a charitable foundation that is run through Rotary clubs, is dedicated to paying for children of developing nations to have pediatric open-heart surgery and connecting them with doctors who are able to perform the operations. Without these procedures, these children would in all likelihood die. Gift of Life provides surgery to children regardless of race, nationality, religion or gender, and has helped children in numerous countries around the world.

“In a lot of countries, the wealthy have health insurance or enough money to pay for it. But the average person does not,” said Henry Ebert, who is the regional director for the Western Region of the United States. His wife Estelle is involved as well, acting as secretary.

The organization started more than 30 years ago, when some Rotary Club members sponsored the heart surgery of a 5-year-old Ugandan girl in Long Island, N.Y. She is now 35 years old and a Rotary Club member herself. Since then, more than 10,000 children have received heart surgery because of Gift of Life. It is the goal of the organization to help 2,000 children per year.

“Had she not lived, a lot of things would not have been accomplished,” said Ebert of that first patient.

Ebert first became involved with the organization when he lived in New Jersey. Upon coming to Southern California, he worked to bring awareness of the foundation to his new home. Before his moving here, Gift of Life was better known on the East Coast.

Pediatric cardiology is a specialty that is quite different from adult cardiology. This is another impediment to children abroad, finding surgeons who have the necessary knowledge to perform the surgery, since there are far fewer pediatric cardiologists than there are adult cardiologists. Nowadays, however, some American doctors are training surgeons elsewhere in the world in the specialty.

“There are quite a few countries where they do them,” said Ebert. “India does a tremendous amount of children.” He also mentioned Italy and Israel as countries where the number of pediatric cardiology surgeries is growing.

The doctors who perform these operations for Gift of Life usually are volunteering their time and expertise, receiving little or no pay.

“Most of the time the doctors do these operations for nothing,” said Ebert.

Since the Rotary Club is an international organization with branches in several countries, the patients are usually found through word of mouth. Many medical personnel are also now familiar with what Gift of Life does, and are able to put potential patients in touch with Rotary clubs in the United States. Now, the organization fields more requests than it is able to grant.

“There are so many requests. It’s difficult,” said Ebert. “I wish we could help more.”

Despite this, Ebert also said that the foundation plans to expand the number of children’s lives they will save, setting a goal of 30,000 surgeries for the next decade.

When Gift of Life first began, most children were operated on in the United States due to the lack of pediatric surgeons in their home countries. They would be hosted by Rotary Club members and travel with another adult, usually a parent, to act as a translator and caretaker. Now surgeries in their home countries are becoming more common.

The first patient that the La Jolla Sunrise Rotary Club sponsored was an 11-year-old boy from Tijuana, and three more children are planned. Currently, the club is planning a mission in which they will travel to Monterrey, Mexico in January and provide surgery to at least 15 to 20 children. Because of Southern California’s close proximity to Mexico, Ebert said he hopes there will be many more Mexican children who need heart surgeries that the organization is able to help.

“It’s a child’s life, who will be an adult later,” said Ebert of the importance of helping children in need.

If you want to make a donation to Gift of Life or sponsor a child, e-mail Henry Ebert at

For more information, visit One child can be sponsored for only $2,000. Donations are tax-deductible and donors will receive medical updates on the children they help.