From right, Sara and Maria Haroon. Photo courtesy of the Haroon family.
Identical Twin Sisters With Heart Condition, One Dies, Other Flies to US In Urgent Need of New Heart
Maria Haroon offered words of comfort and courage to her sister who was lying in the intensive care unit of a hospital in India.
It was around 5pm on March 31, 2013.
Sara Haroon's condition was deteriorating, but she was alert. Since she was admitted in the early morning, her identical twin sister Maria kept vigil at her bedside, supplicating to Allah, and leaving only to confer with doctors about Sara's blood pressure and vital organ stats.
Like Sara, Maria was a pediatrician. Both sisters graduated at the top of their class, and both ranked in the top one percent in national exams taken by two hundred thousand students. Maria understood that Sara's heart was failing.
Around 8pm, doctors put Sara on a ventilator. She passed away around 11pm.
The following morning, the postman arrived with medical visas allowing both sisters to travel to the United States to take part in an experimental stem cell therapy program for the treatment of dilated cardiomyopathy, or enlarged heart.
Maria suffers from the same heart condition, but since March 31, 2013, she suffers alone.
Born in 1982, Sara was only 4 minutes older than her twin sister Maria. Together, they coped with their father's passing when they were 14 years old. They supported one another through medical school, and both chose to practice pediatrics. They were residents at the same hospital. Patients loved “Doctor Sara and Doctor Maria” because the sisters genuinely cared for their patients, most of whom were part of the working-poor class.
Speaking to the Muslim Link from California where she is currently seeking a heart transplant, Maria Haroon said many people urged them to practice medicine in the United States where doctors earn much more than the $2,000 monthly salary the sisters were making.
“Although many doctors from India come to the U.S. for better opportunities, both Sara and I felt we would be more effective staying in India where we could better connect with our patients … money wasn't really our focus,” explained Maria.
Maria's older brother Mujtaba Ahsan, a business professor in California, said that when then 24-year old Maria collapsed from a heart rhythm disturbance in January 2007, her patients never heard about it. Likewise, her patients never knew that when their favorite young doctor returned from her time off, she had a pacemaker keeping her heart beat steady. Given the genetic link between Maria and Sara, Maria's cardiologist recommended Sara undergo a heart examination. Doctors found she also suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy; Sara's pacemaker was implanted the next month, in February 2007.
The two young pediatricians completed their residency programs, working through the 36-hour shifts and managing their heart condition using medicines and visits with their cardiologist. They completed post-graduate studies in 2010 and continued serving the working class and poor families who streamed into Vani Vilas Children's Hospital daily.
Each day, however, was getting harder.
“The enlarged heart muscle is weakened, and it's not able to pump blood to all parts of my body,” explained Maria. “What I used to do before, I'm not able to do now.”
The sisters knew the tiredness and fatigue they felt meant they couldn't continue with the strenuous work load they both carried. They decided to go into private practice and opened their own children's clinic, hoping the work load would be manageable. Although they saw fewer patients, their physical strength was waning day by day.
By late 2012, they knew they had to stop and focus on their heart condition.
“Being a doctor myself, my cardiologist was very frank with me,” recalled Maria, now 30 years old. “He gave me a real picture of post [heart transplant] care in India … he said India just doesn't have what I need.”
The sisters applied for entry into an experimental stem cell program in the United States. The day their medical visas arrived is the same day Sara passed away.
Maria arrived in the United States in April 2013, traveling to Minnesota for the free, experimental therapy. Due to some medical complications, the hospital had to declare Maria ineligible for the therapy. The only recourse now was to find a new heart. Before leaving to stay with her brother in California, Maria met with a heart transplant specialist at the hospital in Minnesota. He told her that her heart might fail in about 6 months.
“If you think about it too much, it becomes overwhelming,” says Mujtaba Ahsan, Maria's older brother who is running a campaign to get Maria a heart. “We are moving between the [hospital] financial offices and the front offices instead of seeing the doctors … it's frustrating because if Maria was a refugee instead of [being] on a medical visa, she would be taken care of,” said Mujtaba, the eldest of five siblings.
California has some of the most active heart transplant centers in the nation, so Maria knows the level of care is good. The wait – and the expense – are another issue.
“Hospitals have not dealt with patients like Maria who are trying to get a heart transplant while paying out of pocket, so it take them a long time to even tell us how much the transplant will cost,” Mujtaba told the Muslim Link.
For the business professor, with the days counting down, navigating the complex medical bureaucracy not only took time, it was also emotionally and mentally distressing. As it was, Maria had to wait for a heart, and then have a surgery. Right now, she isn't even in line.
Hospitals are quoting surgery figures from $800,000 to $1 million for the heart transplant. A California-based Muslim run non-profit called the Medical Network Devoted to Service (MiNDS) has agreed to help Maria negotiate hospital fees. The organization, recognized as the non-profit of the year for 2013 by the California Legislature, is also accepting tax-deductible donations for Maria's heart transplant.
In late July 2013, Mujtaba Ahsan reported donations of about $30,000, mostly from non-Muslim friends and acquaintances.
Maria's case is the largest charitable project MiNDS has been involved with since they launched about two years ago. “A lot of our staff are heavily invested in Maria's case,” said MiNDS director Dr. Taif Kaissi. MiNDS arranged for Maria to see Dr. Fatima Hakkak, a Muslim cardiologist, for regular visits free of cost.
Maria and her family are very appreciative of all the support she receives from MiNDS and from masajid in Southern California. Asked what keeps her going, she quoted a verse from the Qur'an: “Allah does not burden a soul more than it can bear.”
For Maria, this Ramadan is very significant. According to the transplant specialist in Minnesota, unless Maria gets a new heart, this might be her last Ramadan. This month, she doesn't need just one heart, she needs many kind hearts across the nation.
To make a tax-deductible donation through MiNDS, visit www.mindsnetwork.org or send a check payable to: MiNDS and mail it to MiNDS, PO Box 1132, Upland, CA 91785. Put “Heart for Maria Haroon” in the memo.
To send money directly to Maria Haroon (including zakat), use the following bank information:
Account Holder: Maria Haroon
Account Number: 253463569918
Bank's Swift Code is: USBKUS44IMT
Bank's Routing Number: 122235821
Bank Address: US Bank, Milliken Office, 11343 Baseline Road, Rancho Cucamonga, California U.S.A. 91730
For more information, or to contact Maria, search "Heart for Maria" on Facebook.