Thelrina Akene woke up at her home on Yam Island recently and couldn’t walk.
She and her mum Sandi were transferred via helicopter to Thursday Island Hospital for a series of medical tests. Fast forward a few weeks and they are in the Cairns Hospital Children’s Ward, with Thelrina having been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease.
The noises and experiences of firstly flying to Cairns in a helicopter and then undergoing a multitude of tests, are disorienting for the beautiful 12-year-old.
Thankfully, one of the pieces of the puzzle in her diagnosis has been a paediatric cardiovascular ultrasound, bought by hundreds of riders in the 2021 QSuper Cardiac Challenge.
Joint pain and an inability to walk or move a limb can be an indicator of rheumatic fever.
Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service paediatric cardiologist Dr Ben Reeves said a number of tests are required to formally diagnose rheumatic fever or disease, but the ultrasound is the definitive tool.
“I’d like to express my thanks to the riders, volunteers and donors who bought this $146,000 device for the children. Imaging of the heart is clearer and more precise because of technology improvements. I can diagnose problems related to abnormal heart structures present at birth, as well as acquired heart conditions such as rheumatic heart disease (RHD) that are especially common in our community,” Dr Reeves said.
“This is actually the fourth ultrasound that the Far North Queensland Hospital Foundation has bought me and I’m incredibly grateful for the community’s support through the Foundation. The Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of paediatric cardiac services since I joined the hospital in 2011. Throughout my time here their incredible dedication to supporting healthcare in the Far North has meant my patients are assessed and managed using cutting edge technology, either within their own communities during one of my outreach visits, or in Cairns Hospital.
“About a third of my patients are living with rheumatic heart disease which if left untreated can cause structural damage to the heart.
“It’s a very sad fact that the common strep throat infection that we all develop in our lifetimes, can end up in life-limiting structural conditions in First Nations people.
“We keep finding more cases, so the numbers are increasing. It begins as skin sores or throat infections, which if left untreated, can lead to heart valve damage. In some cases, this is due to lack of access to appropriate health care.
“Sadly, we have some children who need heart surgery. But, if we find cases early and treat them properly, nobody needs surgery – it is entirely preventable. It affects First Nations people because they have less access to care, and sometimes live in overcrowded houses where infections are more likely to spread.
“In my studies in the Torres Strait and other Indigenous communities about 4% of people had RHD – 80% of those were new cases they did not know about. Far North Queensland has almost 45% of the state’s RHD.
“There is an inflammation of certain tissues in the body including heart valves and joints (often knees and ankles). This is because the body’s immune system mis-fires – in attempting to kill the bacteria it falsely recognises its own tissue as foreign and causes damage. This is why only some people are affected – you have to have the immune reaction that puts you at risk.”
Most at risk of developing the disease are young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 5-15, who are 55 times more likely to die of the disease than their non-Indigenous peers.
Rheumatic heart disease is responsible for the highest gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – higher than even diabetes or kidney failure. After even just a single episode of acute rheumatic fever, young people need monthly injections of penicillin for at least a decade, often longer. Thankfully now that Thelrina has been diagnosed, treatment is a simple case of regular monitoring and the monthly penicillin injection.
Far North Queensland Hospital Foundation CEO Gina Hogan said it was incredible to see the outcome of people coming together for such a worthy cause.
“It really puts this event into perspective, hearing Thelrina’s story and knowing that we can help make a positive difference in her life and the lives of 400 other rheumatic fever patients that Dr Reeves cares for,” Mrs Hogan said.
This is an important partnership opportunity in the QSuper team calendar. As a part of Australian Retirement Trust, QSuper looks after the retirement savings of many Queensland Health employees in the state’s Far North, and we are proud to support an initiative that helps our members working in cardiac health to provide state-of-the-art care for their patients.
The 2021 QSuper Cardiac Challenge resulted in the purchase of a $30,000 ventilator for cardiology, a $146,000 ultrasound for paediatric cardiology, detailed lung function testing and a hybrid bronchoscope valued at $275,000 for respiratory and a $25,000 body composition scanner for endocrinology.
About the QSuper Cardiac Challenge
The QSuper Cardiac Challenge is an annual fundraising bike ride from Cairns to Cooktown, hosted by the Far North Queensland Hospital Foundation. The 2022 event will be the 16th time the Cardiac Challenge bike ride has been held, with almost $5 million raised for cardiac services by the Foundation, in that time.
QSuper is a part of Australian Retirement Trust, the super fund formed through the merger of Sunsuper and QSuper on 28 February 2022. Australian Retirement Trust is one of Australia’s largest super funds, proud to take care of over $230 billion in retirement savings for more than two million members. For more information, please visit https://qsuper.qld.gov.au
Photo: Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service paediatric cardiologist Dr Ben Reeves with Thelrina Akene, her mother Sandi Martin and Foundation CEO Gina Hogan.