In Uganda, the life expectancy at birth is only 55.4 years, 212th out of the 224 countries in the world. (The United States clocks in at 79.8 years.) Although diseases such as malaria and HIV are two of the East African country’s top 10 causes of death, the largest barrier to a longer lifespan is access to quality medical care, as a scarcity of supplies and low salaries often drive off qualified doctors.
One-and-a-half-year-old Deborah Kisakye could have been a victim of her nation’s lack of quality care. Even though she lives in the bustling capital of Kampala, where health care is (slightly) more readily available, physicians didn’t know how to treat her rare congenital heart defect. She was diagnosed with double outlet right ventricle, in which the aorta is attached to the right ventricle instead of the left; consequently, her body wasn’t getting any of the oxygen-rich blood that the heart’s left ventricle typically pumps to the rest of the body. Outwardly, Deborah was breathing very quickly and sweating profusely. She needed surgery to live.
In 2011, a team of Dallas-based doctors working in Uganda connected Deborah and her family with Dr. Steven Leonard, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children (RMHC). Leonard had completed several medical missions in Honduras and, when he heard about Deborah’s condition, felt the familiar tug of advocacy. Deborah and her mother, Mariam, left their banana and coffee bean farm behind and flew to the Mile High City for a pro-bono operation. “When she came here, the doctors, the nurses, they all cared about the sick child and her, someone who wasn’t even sick,” Mariam’s translator relayed. “It’s not like that back home.”
The repair was successful, and Deborah returned to Uganda free of complications. Eventually, though, she developed two obstructions. This past fall, Children’s Heart Project, a division of international aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, provided the funds to send her and her mother back to Denver. “Unfortunately, we can’t just open the doors to the world for anyone to have surgery,” Leonard says, noting that RMHC can take about one or two international pro-bono patients each year. “But when Deborah developed complications, [RMHC] said, ‘yes, of course, she’s our patient.’”
Deborah is now seven years old. She says little and likely doesn’t understand the gravity of why she’s in such a strange place. But her occasional wide grin conveys enough. When Deborah, Mariam, the translator, and Dr. Leonard all cram into a RMHC conference room in early December, the joy in the small space is palpable. Deborah’s last follow-up appointment was December 19, and her mother hopes to be back in Uganda before Christmas. America’s been wonderful, but Deborah’s dad and three siblings are waiting at home to celebrate.
Follow assistant editor Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.