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Dilemma and relief of Uganda’s heart patients

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

At the age of 11, Nina Nahabwe underwent open heart surgery in the USA in 2003. Her parents could not have afforded the cost without the help of Kampala Rotary Club and Gift of Life International, a humanitarian body allied to overseas rotary groups that help the poor suffering from heart ailments to access treatment.

Before the surgery I could hardly do anything because I was very weak and sickly. I kept in bed most of the time. But now I feel good, says Nahabwe, now in Form 2.

Another moving testimony comes from Robinah  Nakabuye. She was the second heart surgery case to be taken abroad in Uganda Rotarians history. In 1977, Nakabuye, too had a second chance to live after the Rotary Club of Kampala sent her to Manhattan for open heart surgery.

Doctors at Mulago had discovered a hole in her heart and said she would not live for more than a year unless she went abroad for an operation. The Manhattan doctors discovered that Nakabuye had another problem in the head  she had clots in her brain. She underwent another surgery. Doctors were amazed because her case was peculiar so they retained her for six months under observation, says senior Rotarian Augustine Bigirwa who told Nakabuye’s story for she was too overcome by emotions to speak at a conference organised by Uganda Heart Institute and Gift of Life International in Kampala on October 17. It is so challenging to wake up in the morning and find out you need a heart surgery but there is no money, says Nakabuye. You need kind people to contribute for your second chance in life.

Although Nahabwe, Nakabuye and a few others are lucky to have had such surgeries abroad like in China, India, USA, Dominican Republic, Italy, Jordan, Russsia, and South Korea, many other Ugandans with heart ailments have not been as fortunate. Some have died and others are still grappling with their ailments with little hope of seeing their next birthday.

Thats why Gift of Life International (GOLI) is liaising with the Uganda Heart Institute (UHI) to train local doctors to perform open heart surgeries to save many poor Ugandans who cannot afford treatment abroad. It costs about Shs 50 million for a heart surgery abroad yet this money is beyond the reach of millions of Ugandans. However, if such operations were regularly done at Mulago, the patients would be saved of 38 million ($18,000). Doing the operation here would cost $7,000 (about Shs14m) instead of the $25,000 (about Shs 50m), said Dr Tom Mwambu, a consultant heart surgeon at UHI. Forty Ugandans with heart complications mainly children have been operated on in 13 countries with support from GOLI, which has sponsored 11,000 children successful heart surgeries around the world since its formation in 2003.

On October 17, GOLI and rotary clubs of Kampala and Kyambogo organised a reunion of Ugandans who had undergone open heart surgery to tell their experiences. According to Augustine Rugyema, the chairman of GOLI Uganda, the organisation was to take 20 children for heart surgery at the end of last month.

New hope

The pain of taking ailing heart patients abroad might be minimised in the next five years when GOLI opens a heart surgery facility in Uganda. GOLIs founder, Robbi Donno, says. Children with various heart conditions from East Africa will be able to use it, said Donno. GOLI will set up many such facilities around the world but will begin with one on each continent. The first project will be in Africa (Uganda) followed by Central America and Middle-East next.

Donnos idea of establishing GOLI blossomed in 1975 when he successfully appealed to the Rotary district to help then 5-year-old Grace Agwaru, who had a heart complication.

In collaboration with heart surgeons around the world and Uganda Heart Institute, GOLI will train local heart surgeons to operate more patients here. The GOLI-sourced doctors will be coming with their equipment which they will later donate to the Uganda Heart Institute.

It is expected that in the next year, 70 cases will be operated at UHI Mulago through this collaboration.

Dr Sam Zaramba, director general of health services in Uganda promised governments commitment to increase its support to UHI.

Rob Raylman, the GOLI executive director, said Uganda has a few cardiologists who just need motivation. There are skilled doctors at the Heart Institute Mulago. There are people out there who are helping others not because they know them but because they have good hearts hearts that are willing to help the ailing, Raylman said.

Grace Agwaru was the first Ugandan to have heart surgery abroad through the GOLI support. She says when she had the heart problem her parents feared she would die and had given up. Now because of Gift of Life am able to stand before you. My life has changed. I have studied, helped my parents and my community. We are here to say thank you for giving us the gift to live, said Agwaru. Currently based in the US, Agwaru said she has helped children with heart problems by arranging their travel abroad for surgery.

In Uganda people with heart problems make public appeals for money to enable them go abroad for operations due to lack of  the required equipment and manpower. The required heart machine costs $3 million (about Shs 6 billion).

Only the lucky and rich ones have succeeded in having treatment abroad. But hundreds of the sick have died or awaiting death. The Mulago Heart Institute has been performing a few simpler heart surgeries with the help of visiting foreign doctors. Recently the institutes director Dr John Omagino told parliament that unless government addresses doctors poor wages the country will continue to lose its best doctors to other countries who pay better.

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