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28th September 2015

Mending hearts with traditional skills

What do you do if your three-year-old gets tired after walking just one block and almost faints and turns purple when crying? Cynthia had these symptoms because she was letting out large amounts of blood through a small hole in her heart. Fortunately for her and her family Bolivian knitters had produced a tiny invention that could stop it.

La Paz in Bolivia has an altitude of 4,000 meters. That means that people suffering from heart defects suffer from particularly severe symptoms. They struggle to gain weight and get easily tired especially children suffering from congenital heart problems – one of the most common birth defects.


When Cynthia’s mother discovered that something was wrong with her daughter she didn’t know what to do. Heart surgery is both very expensive and for a large part of the native population in Bolivia also believed to an interference with the human soul.

Fortunately a Bolivian doctor had initiated a special collaboration between an invention that stops the hole in a heart and the traditional knitting skills of Bolivian women which for centuries have been used in knitting and weaving woolen hats, sweaters and blankets.

A crew of indigenous knitters is now set up and producing the tiny metal device that can fold to the size of a string and travel through the body in a catheter. When it reaches the heart it expands to its original size and blocks the hole. Here it stays without needing to be renewed or replaced.

Cynthia had the device implanted three years ago, and her mother is happy to note that she now can run and play like anyone else and even pass physical education in school.