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Fixing Rwandan Hearts, all the way from Boston

by Lillian Gahima
3:35 pm

Jean Paul Haragirimana 19, was the breadwinner for his family until the unthinkable happened.

As a porter at a cement factory for more than 3 years, everything was normal until one morning when Haragirimana woke up feeling dizzy, weak, a chest pain. He started coughing out blood.

Transfers to most referral hospitals around Rwanda never provided a disease diagnosis. Doctors suggested different chronicle illnesses including HIV, but the tests were negative. “I was left to die,” says Haragirimana, now 25.

Ceeya Patton Bolman, Program Director and Co-founder of Team Heart, a Boston based non-profit medical organisation terms Hagirimana’s case as rheumatic heart disease, resulting from strep throat, a condition many Rwandans are born with.

“We have identified a huge failure in Rwanda, to identify care for cardiac cases that are life threatening and can result into death if surgeries are not carried out,” explains Ceeya.

In 2011, Team Heart conducted a screening exercise targeting children (9-17years), results showed that six out every 1000 children in Rwanda live with undiagnosed heart disease.

Meanwhile 45,000 children in Rwanda live with heart issues resulting from undiagnosed strep throat diseases. Without treatment, strep throat leads to permanent heart valve damage, doctors say. In Rwanda, Ceeya explains, the disease is common in economically challenged communities.

Team Heart, created a voluntarily screen and run life saving heart surgeries in Rwanda, since 2007.

Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, a Boston based non-profit health care organization, has been seeking heart surgery volunteers.

After his call, Ceeya convinced her husband, a heart surgeon, to join Team Heart, which has conducted 116 heart surgeries; 95% of them rheumatic heart diseases.

Unfortunately, many patients cannot afford being flown abroad such as India, for the lifesaving surgery that costs about US$7,000.

Team Heart requires a patient to pay 10% of the costs, as the Ministry of Health and other donors clear bills of patients who cannot afford the 10%.

This year, in a special program dubbed, Fix a Broken Heart, Team Heart mobilized over $200,000 to transport a bigger team of cardiologists, surgeons and specialists that conducted 16 complex surgeries. Haragirimana was among the patients operated on.

Meanwhile, Team Heart is will erect a permanent cardiac centre by 2018. About 600 heart patients are in queue awaiting surgery when Team Heart returns next year.