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Paediatric Cardiac Surgery

The Division’s Paediatric services are based at the 300-bed Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital (RCCH) in Rondebosch, about 3km from the University and the adult hospital (Groote Schuur). This is the only stand-alone, specialist children's hospital in southern Africa, and is internationally regarded as a cornerstone for excellence in child healthcare and treatment on the African continent. The hospital is known locally simply as “Red Cross” or the "Children’s Hospital.” It was founded in 1956 as a War Memorial with mostly public funding, initiated by returning soldiers after WWII.

The Red Cross Children’s Hospital was built and established primarily as the paediatric academic hospital of the University of Cape Town Medical School. The University “Department of Thoracic Surgery” under Prof. Walter Philips established a paediatric service there along with several other specialities at the time of opening.

In 1958 Christiaan Barnard returned from training overseas and brought with him a donated Gibbons bypass machine from Minnesota. The first open cardiac operation on a child in Africa was done at Red Cross in March of that year by Prof Walter Philips with Dr Barnard running the bypass pump. The cardiac program grew rapidly, and in 1962 Walter Philips was succeeded as head of department by Christiaan Barnard, who rapidly established the Red Cross unit as a leading paediatric service.

In 1965 Africa’s first paediatric ICU was opened at Red Cross specifically for post-operative cardiac patients. The hospital today continues to provide a full range of paediatric services, from basic primary care to all the tertiary services one would expect at a university academic hospital. It maintains the strong public support it began with, and public and donor funding remains an important part of keeping the institution well-equipped and up-to-date.

Red Cross Children’s Hospital Today

The hospital is State owned, but all clinical services are supplied by the Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of Cape Town. It serves exclusively children without medical insurance (about 85% of the population), and there is no private practice at the hospital. The administration is headed by a CEO with a team of administrators who are all state-employed and -appointed. The clinical side is headed and run by doctors who are employed jointly by the University of Cape Town and the State health services. There is in addition a Hospital Board – a management team that oversees the co-operation of these two groupings – and the Hospital Trust, a publicly-run fundraising group that maintains donor support for the hospital.

Apart from the association with the University of Cape Town, the Hospital also serves the SA Nursing council as a paediatric nurse training base, and the Cape Peninsula University Technikon (college of technology), training paramedical technologists.

The growth of the children’s heart surgery at Red Cross kept pace with that of major centres throughout the developed world in the 60s to 80s, but then began to lag behind. In the past 2 decades there has been a stagnation in output numbers. This is primarily as a result of inadequate funding resulting in inadequate staffing. At the same time over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a gradual growth of the infrastructure at the hospital predominantly through donor funding, such that the capacity of the hospital infrastructure has continued to increase in many areas.