Sunday, July 24, 2011

Open Hearts & Surgery

She is almost two years old when I finally meet her. A sturdy toddler, inquisitive and like most African children, Isabel is interested in other people. She wanders around around the Agip Motor Hotel in Mbarara where her parents and I have gone to dine out.
She plunks herself down in my lap but soon is off to explore the verandah. A Chinese business group notice her watching them and give her a cellophane-wrapped sweet which she brings back to us. Something new for her, she shows it around to us all. At first we don’t know where she got it but as they are the only Chinese group eating on the porch and the writing is in Chinese, we soon figure it out. When she sets off again, her brother, Timothy is delegated to keep an eye on her, but she is clearly a handful.

When she reached six months, she began to have difficulty breathing and took on a blue tinge. She was taken to Kampala where she was diagnosed as having a small hole in her heart. This is bad news in Uganda where the doctors may be able to diagnose it correctly but have no access to cardiac surgery, not even for fairly simple manoeuvres such as fixing a patent ductus. The news quickly spread and people offered to locate a place where surgery could be done, to review the diagnosis and to contribute air miles and cash. A search was made of sites, advice was sought, but in Uganda, time was running out.

Her parents are dear friends, among the first people I met at the university in Mbarara when I arrived in 2002. We share an interest in community health. They are hardworking and resourceful. They quickly located a surgeon and hospital in India which accepted children from Africa and they committed to making it happen. This proves difficult as time is running out. Also although colleagues were generous, the cost of sending mother and child to India and getting the operation done are nothing short of prohibitive.

Still colleagues at the university in Uganda managed to raise $1000 in cash, a phenomenal feat in such a cash-strapped economy. This nest egg and some donated air miles were not enough to ensure it will be done but it was enough for Isabel and her mother to set off on the plane before she was severely compromised.

Some of us were still trying to process the info and help to locate an appropriate place where the operation could be done, when we heard they had headed for India, one step ahead of the Grim Reaper. It was clear that at this point, cash was needed, not advice. Through donations wired to the Kampala branch of her bank account, which her mother was able to access in India,enough money was realized. The whole thing was touch and go for most of the time, but thanks to modern banking transfers, the internet and generous friends, one very sick, young gal was able to get the life-saving operation she needed.

It is such a thrill to see her clamouring over the chairs in the hotel. She is a testament to Open Hearts and Surgery in a place where one doesn't deserve to find them.

Photos: Isabel and mom, Brother Timothy



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