There are children in countries worldwide who are alive today because of the work of pediatric cardiologist Juan “Chuck” Alejos, M.D., ’79.
As medical director of the Pediatric Heart Transplant/Cardiomyopathy Program at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, he provides advanced cardiac care for children of all ages. And he extends that skill to children thousands of miles away, traveling to South America each year to provide cardiac care for infants and young people in need.
Alejos’s parents enrolled him and his younger sister, Emily ’81, at Brookside when Alejos was in sixth grade, wanting, he recalls, “the best education possible for us.” He remembers being a shy student, who tried to sit in the back row of class only to be moved to the front row by an encouraging teacher. As he grew older, Alejos soon found his confidence and became an engaged and active student.
“Cranbrook helped me become an independent thinker,” he says. “It encouraged me in wanting to help people and in looking at everyone as individuals and how we are all connected.”
Alejos’s father was a pediatrician practicing in Mount Clemens, Michigan. He would take his son to the office with him on weekends to see patients. “I remember the kids always lit up when they saw him,” Alejos says. “He was always there to help people, even if it was just someone in the neighborhood who knocked on the door. He was always my hero.”
That desire to heal and help spurred Alejos’s entry into the University of Michigan and later its School of Medicine. After graduation, he moved out to California where he completed his internship, residency and fellowship at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Today, in his many roles at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Alejos is practicing the kind of medicine he loves, whether it is working in the intensive care unit, performing surgeries or following up with his young patients as they recover. “The most rewarding thing is having a kid come in sick who gets transplanted and stabilized and goes home a whole new kid with a new chance at life,” he says.
Early in his career at UCLA, Alejos’s father passed away. Alejos was inspired to trace his father’s journey as a young physician and traveled to Peru to visit the hospital where the elder Alejos trained. While there, he offered to give lectures on heart transplants to the staff. The chief of medicine suggested he do something with an even greater impact—perform procedures there and train other surgeons.
Inspired, Alejos went back to California and began raising money so that he and a team of fellow physicians could travel to Peru and begin work. “On that first mission, we did corrective procedures and diagnosed a couple of hundred children,” he says.
Alejos founded and now leads the nonprofit Hearts with Hope Foundation, which provides surgical, medical and humanitarian assistance to children with congenital heart disease in underserved global communities. In addition to Peru, Alejos and his colleagues have traveled to Honduras, El Salvador and the Philippines to help children in those countries.
“It’s been a pretty amazing feeling to know that you made a difference,” Alejos says. “For us, it was just the fact that we were doing what we were trained to do—helping people.”
By providing education and training to their peers in Peru and other countries, Alejos and his fellow physicians and allied health professionals have helped introduce new, more advanced treatments to communities that previously had no way to treat certain heart conditions. “When we started, they were about 20 years behind,” he says. “They were hungry for knowledge but had no one to train them. And we learned a lot from them too.”
Today, being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of advanced procedures has allowed the local physicians to make the case that certain diseases and conditions are treatable—meaning their nation’s healthcare systems will provide support and care for patients who otherwise would have been deemed untreatable.
In the years ahead, Alejos looks to the possibility of expanding the program to other countries. “We’re willing to do as much as we can,” he says. “But we don’t want to just do surgeries and leave. We want to be able to make a 10-year commitment. If other places want us, we want to go.”
No matter where Alejos and his peers travel, the fact is that a generation of children’s lives have been saved and their futures restored because of one man’s desire to help others.