Warrnambool cardiologist Noel Bayley has been awarded the prestigious Medal of the Order of Timor-Leste for his work saving lives through the medical fund he helped set up.
President of the Republic of Timor-Leste Dr Jose Ramos-Horta presented Dr Bayley with the medal for outstanding contribution to improving the health of many Timorese people.
Dr Bayley began providing cardiac care for Timorese people in 2000 while supporting his wife Yve who was involved in clean water projects in Timor-Leste.
He noticed that many people in remote villages were unwell with symptoms he recognised as rheumatic heart disease - a condition caused by acute rheumatic fever.
Timor-Leste has one of the world's highest rates of rheumatic heart disease - an entirely preventable condition - with 35 out of 1000 people affected.
If left untreated, patients can suffer terrible pain, disability and premature death.
With no cardiac surgery available in Timor-Leste, critical patients need to have surgery overseas.
With children and young people at greatest risk, Dr Bayley knew he had to do whatever he could.
He began giving cardiac ultrasound scans to screen patients for rheumatic heart disease and arranging care through Bairo Pite Clinic - Timor-Leste's largest non-government health service.
From 2000 to 2010 he personally funded his medical visits to Timor-Leste and contributed to the cost of surgeries for at least six patients.
In 2013, Dr Bayley co-founded East Timor Hearts Fund which provides education, diagnosis, prevention and treatment programs.
Through his network, he built a groundswell of medical volunteers who gave pro-bono expertise.
They ran heart screening clinics in Timor-Leste, trained local doctors to identify and treat rheumatic heart disease and established an early intervention program providing patients with penicillin to prevent their symptoms from getting worse.
However, the program that has been closest to Dr Bayley's heart was bringing critical patients to Australia for life-saving surgery.
Thanks to him, and East Timor Hearts Fund supporters, nearly 100 patients have received heart surgery, free of charge. Many more have received vital support.
Dr Bayley said he was honoured to receive the award.
"I am humbled that the Timorese people have allowed me to walk alongside them to help prevent and treat rheumatic heart disease," he said.
In addition to saving lives, Dr Bayley has been instrumental in research and prevention approaches to tackle systemic cardiac heart health issues in Timor-Leste.
The fund plans to establish a new office in Dili next year and expanding its team to help even more patients in future.
East Timor Hearts Fund chief executive officer Jane Papasergio said that thanks to Mr Bayley, more than 6000 Timorese people had been screened for heart disease and hundreds of clinicians have been trained to identify rheumatic heart disease.
"We are enormously proud of Noel," she said.
To donate to the fund visit www.easttimorheartsfund.org.au
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