The Ho Chi Minh City Heart Institute was formed like "magic," says Duong Quang Trung, president of the HCMC Medical Association.
Prior to 1990, Vietnamese had to travel abroad on charity funds to receive heart surgeries. Each year only a few dozen children were saved by such operations, said Trung.
At that time, Trung was the director of the city health department and wanted to open a heart institute in HCMC to help more people.
He asked Alain Frédéric Carpentier, one of the world's premier heart doctors, for help but the Frenchman declined because he said malnutrition and infectious diseases were more pressing problems in need of solving.
"But I told him that it was almost the end of the 20th century, why should so many children have to sit there and simply wait for death due to heart disease?" said Trung.
Trung got Carpentier to visit HCMC's Children Hospital 2 in 1990. By chance, Alain saw a 12 year old child who had just passed away due to heart disease.
Carpentier was moved and told Trung then and there that he would provide the training and equipment to establish a heart institute here.
Man behind the myth
Carpentier is now head of Cardiovascular Surgery Department at Hôpital Européen Georges Pompidou in Paris and sits on the Board of Directors of the World Heart Foundation.
He has received many honors, including the 1996 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, and in 2005, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) bestowed upon him its Medallion for Scientific Achievement, only the fifth time the award has ever been given.
He has also been chairman of the management board at the HCMC Heart Institute since its inception 20 years ago.
But his work in Vietnam is not just a photo op, he's here for results.
Carpentier, who has also founded cardiac surgery programs in 17 French-speaking countries in Africa, says that in Vietnam, just like the rest of the world, there is a 0.5 percent chance a child is born with a congenital malformation of the heart.
"This is the number one heart disease in Vietnam. But the situation here is now better thanks to better living conditions and significant improvements in the medical environment."
The institute operates on 1,200 adults and children per year, of which half are very young or newborns, and of which 61 percent are supported with operation expense.
Carpentier says that the institute's vision has always been to help the helpless.
With several medical technology patents under his belt, the French doctor now provides much needed treatment via fundraising and from his royalties.
"We continue pursuing the vision of providing technology and social help. No child should be refused for financial reasons. If they have no money, we have a system to pay for their US$2,900 operation. And this is the lowest cost in the world. In America this costs 12 times more."
Carpentier's new challenge is to renovate the institute and boost its non-surgical treatment capacity to ensure that fewer kids actually need surgery.
Preventive care could be a big life-saver, he said, especially as just one heart transplant costs as much as 15 normal heart operations.
No child left behind
Carpentier says one of the keys to the institute's success has been Phan Kim Phuong, one of the facility's main surgeons who has carried out some thousand heart operations.
Phuong is now director of the institute and has been with it since it opened, with the exception of two years' training in France.
Carpentier credits Phuong with helping influence his decision to open up an institute in HCMC.
"The first time I came to Vietnam I saw a child who was very sick and almost dead, but after a single operation by Dr. Phuong, the baby was transformed into normal.
"It is very emotional to see very sick and dying child become very well," said Carpentier.
"This is the aim of our surgeries here: restoring normal lives for human beings."