Rockaway Rotary Brings A Lovely Journey Of Life
Exactly one year to the day after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, one girl’s struggle with a heart condition gives a shining example of hope that there are people in this world who still care and will reach out to help.
Lovely Ajuste is a 15-year-old Haitian girl whose home was destroyed in the earthquake. Unable to breathe or catch her breath after walking short distances, she was one of the 50 patients a day that was being seen by Mahalia Desruisseaux, M.D., assistant professor of pathology and of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, who had traveled to Haiti to assist in the relief effort. Dr. Desruisseaux is of Haitian decent herself and was the one who discovered upon her examination of Lovely that she was not suffering from a cold or from the dust in the air, but that she had a congenital heart defect.
Dr. Desruisseaux reached out to a cardiac specialist for a consult, who told her about a program sponsored by Rotary International called The Gift of Life. The GOL program brings children from around the world with life threatening congenital heart defects that cannot be addressed in their home countries, to the U.S. for the surgery. A very small stipend of $10,000 goes to the hospital, while all the remaining costs of the operation are either donated or handled by volunteers. For each $10,000 raised, one life (at least) is saved.
The program was started by the Rotary Club of Manhasset with one little girl from Uganda, Grace Angwaru. The program has since expanded all over the world, and to date has saved the lives of over 12,000 children. Many of these surgeries are performed locally at Montefiore Children’s Hospital in the Bronx. Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, where Dr. Desruisseaux serves as assistant professor, is affiliated with Montefiore.
“Lovely has a large hole in between the two upper chambers of her heart,” explained Samuel Weinstein, M.D., director of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Montefiore and associate professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Einstein, who performed Ajuste’s operation. “This causes her right heart to be stressed, causing an inability to function normally.” Left untreated, ASD can permanently damage the heart and may lead to a shortened life span.
“The procedure needed to repair this defect would be difficult, if not impossible, to have performed in Haiti right now, but it is routine in the United States,” continued Dr. Weinstein. “Following surgery, her life expectancy should be near normal.”
The children who are the recipients of the operations are hosted by a local Rotary Club. In Lovely’s case, that is the Rotary Club of Rockaway. The local club is responsible for all the incidental expenses of the family, transporting them back and forth between the local Ronald McDonald House where they are staying, visiting the family, and being the liaison between them and the larger GOL organization. They also make sure any incidental needs of the family are taken care of.
On this case, the local club is being assisted by the Haitian GOL, represented by Florence and Eddie Marc Charles, who act as interpreters and also give whatever material, emotional, and other assistance is needed.
Several organizations come together to partner in these cases. As mentioned previously, the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island has been a longstanding and vital part of the GOL program, providing a safe, clean, inexpensive place for the families to stay both during and after the surgery.
American Airlines Miles for Kids program and Airline Ambassadors International donated the flights back and forth for both Lovely, and her mother, Viola Bady, from Haiti. The hospital, the doctors, the Rotary Club, the GOL Haiti, and the individual members of each club each contribute in their own way to make these surgeries happen.
Lovely made a quick recovery and was discharged back to the Ronald McDonald House only three days after her surgery. She will continue to receive medical care under the auspices of the local Rotary Club once she returns to Haiti.
Through an interpreter, Lovely has indicated that she is very grateful for this opportunity, and would like to become a doctor herself when she grows up.
Her mother, also speaking via an interpreter, expressed her gratitude and thanks to all who have been involved in providing this lifesaving operation to her daughter. She was very impressed that so many would come together to help a girl “they didn’t even know.”
Now that the surgery is done, Lovely will recuperate from the surgery at the Ronald McDonald House. If all goes as scheduled, she will return to Port-au- Prince in February or March. She turned 16 on Thursday, January 20, and a very Happy Birthday took place at the Ronald McDonald House for her.
For more information about the Rotary Gift of Life program visit www.giftoflifeinternational.org.
Mark Dana is the president-elect of the Rockaway Rotary Club, and the GOL chairman for the club.