There are some faces you never forget, that stop you in your tracks and remind you of the miracles in this life. The alert and happy face of Mbura Mwakia with his beaming smile is just one of those. Mbura is 14 years old but his body really looks more like the one of an eight-year old boy with brittle limbs and no muscle tone. Yet, despite obvious severe hardship Mbura is open, engaging, and playful. I met him in the children’s ward at the Mombasa Hospital on the eastern coast of Kenya. He had had open-heart surgery just a few days earlier.
As it was, I had planned to meet up with Dee and Mike Belliere who were overseeing a MEAK pediatric heart mission in Mombasa. I wanted to interview their local Kenyan partners, some of them unsung heroes who work behind the scene.
The heart mission was coming to an end and had been very successful. Twenty- three patients had been operated and all were recovering well at this point. Shortly after my arrival I joined two of the cardiologists from MEAK’s volunteer UK medical team who were on their way to the hospital. We arrived at the Mombasa Hospital, which looked like a spacious country club set on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. The mood was up, the cardiologists, Dr. Aaron Bell and Dr. Kiberan Pushparajah from the Evalina Children’s hospital at Guys and St Thomas in the UK were eager to show me around and to share their experience of the last ten days and in particular Mbura’s story.
The first stop was the medical laboratory where we met up with some of MEAK’s local partners. Putting together these heart missions is no small affair. Indeed it demands a complex network of partnerships, a lot of coordination and negotiation, and more than anything the absolute dedication and perseverance of extraordinary individuals. MEAK with founders Mike and Dee Belliere bring the medical team and equipment from the UK. Tanuja Walli with her organization, the Paediatric Support Group, is the main coordinator in Mombasa. She screens the patients, negotiates rates with the hospital, and finds local sponsors. Nargis Kasmani, another extraordinary partner from Lions Club International, is an essential source of local funding and logistical support. Lastly, the operations done by the UK medical team could not have gone smoothly without Dr. Moda who runs very effectively the hospital laboratory. He proudly shows us the lab and I stop in front of this blood bank. I have never seen one! It looks just like a fridge! Albeit, it is absolutely essential to any heart operation, and even more so in Kenya where AIDS is prevalent.
On our way to see Mbura, we stop at the women’s ward, which is flanked by a long terrace with views of the ocean. That view could do wonders for any sick person! No need for air conditioning, the ocean breeze takes care of cooling the rooms.
We get to the children’s ward and we find Mbura in his little room or cubicle with his dad. Mbura is recovering magnificently. This certainly explains the big smile on his face whose expression is strikingly wise for a teenage boy. He arrived in a terrible state, with a heart so large that it filled his chest cavity. He came from a village north of Mombasa near Kilifi. Due to an undetected infection in his very young years that attacks the lining of the heart and the heart valves otherwise called endocarditis, he had developed a very serious heart condition – severe right heart failure and tricuspid regurgitation – that made his heart swell hugely. Besides stunting his growth, this condition severely impaired his quality of life leaving him most of the time breathless with no energy and plagued with fevers and sweats. His parents had sought out help but with many other children to care for they could not afford the operation until the Mombasa based Paediatric Support Group with the help of MEAK and its medical team and star surgeon Professor Anderson and other local sponsors had made it possible. For the first time in years he was able to breathe almost normally now that his lungs could begin to spread out in his chest. His vitality was increasing markedly and while he was not bouncing around quite yet he was able to playfully kick a soccer ball that Dr. Bell had brought over for him.
A moment like this is one of the reasons for my going all the way to Kenya for my “vacations.”