The Race for Life

November 30, 2015 • Uganda
The Race for Life

A baby born with a heart defect must find the help he needs to survive

Sarah Abonyo’s son received life-saving heart surgery through the Children’s Heart Project.

The birth of baby Elijah ushered in joy to our family. However, this joy was short lived. When Elijah was 6 months old, a doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia. He discovered something unusual in the way Elijah was breathing and advised us to see a pediatrician or cardiologist. His breath was fast, and his growth was stunted.

When an opportunity came for me to go to Kampala for an interview, Solomon, my husband, thought it wise to kill two birds with one stone. So I decided to do the interview as well as take Elijah for a medical examination. I went to Mengo Hospital to see a pediatrician, and the doctor suspected Elijah had a heart abnormality.

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Elijah spent a lot of time in the hospital in the months following his birth.

I was referred to Mulago National Referral Hospital for an echo scan. I was given the echo report but I couldn’t interpret it, so I took the results back to Mengo Hospital. When they told me what it meant, tears of despondence cascaded down my chubby cheeks. I cried my heart out.

The doctor said that Elijah’s heart was enlarged but didn’t tell me that he would require surgery. He gave me some medicine, and I traveled 12 hours back home to Moroto and shared the matter with my husband. He was crestfallen but composed.

Less than two weeks after leaving Kampala, my boy fell sick. He was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with malaria and pneumonia. It was the beginning of many tragic moments. Though he was being treated with antibiotics, his health deteriorated day after day. On the fourth day, he began convulsing, and I knew he had breathed his last. The trainee nurse had run to call the doctor.

But Solomon held the stiff baby and gave what he called a kiss of life. The little, frail baby gasped for breath. The baby was put on oxygen, and we were referred to Mulago Hospital. The hospital arranged for an ambulance, and we left for Kampala. We arrived at Mulago at 2:00 a.m. and were admitted.

By morning, Elijah’s condition had worsened. He was no longer feeding. I was heartbroken. I cried until I couldn’t anymore. Finally, realizing that crying was getting me nowhere, I gathered myself together and, for the first time, rebuked Satan to his face. I started praying, optimistic that God would intervene and my son wouldn’t die.

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Elijah was on oxygen and feeding tubes for eight days. He was weak and dehydrated. Doctors told us to keep praying because his condition was critical, but I continued to believe that he would live. After 10 days, I started breastfeeding him, and we were discharged. The doctor then told us Elijah’s condition required open-heart surgery to be repaired. I cursed life. I wished that I were going through these problems instead of Elijah.

What made the whole situation graver was the price. Open-heart surgery would cost 14,875,000 Ugandan shillings [around 4,500 USD]. It was a colossal amount of money for my husband to save. Being without a job, I couldn’t help supplement his meager income. We had to stay in the city Kampala for a month as the doctors monitored Elijah through constant reviews. Each of these visits to the hospital cost money. How many children die because the parents cannot afford exorbitant medical bills?

Seeking Children’s Heart Project

We left for home at the end of November, extremely miserable but determined to seek medical help for Elijah. My husband and I devoted much time to writing for assistance from various organizations. Eventually, the Almighty God led us to the offices of Samaritan’s Purse. We had spent all we had in our savings and started borrowing in order to meet Elijah’s medical bills and transport fare from Moroto to Kampala for monthly reviews with the doctors. It involved traveling late on bad roads from Karamoja to the city.

I grew thinner and thinner every day. Elijah was all I thought of. I forgot about everything else. I felt the world was coming to an end for me.

But I will live to bless the name of the Lord because He used this difficult moment in my life to save me and draw me close to Him. I met many people who encouraged me spiritually. My God showed me his love through Samaritan’s Purse. On April 3, 2015, the Children’s Heart Project program manager in Uganda called me to tell me the good news of Elijah’s pending surgery in the U.S.

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Elijah playing with leaves at his host home in the U.S.

It was unbelievable but pleasant to my ears. I screamed in amazement; I couldn’t hold this kind of excitement inside me. My husband, though usually composed, couldn’t hold back his tears.

On April 7, my husband and I traveled to meet the Samaritan’s Purse team. When we met them, I felt blessed because they immediately began processing the travel documents. They were so compassionate and loving. We got the passports and went back to Moroto as they processed the visas.

The devil wasn’t happy with these advancements. Elijah fell ill again, and we had to rush him to Mulago in an ambulance, which we had to pay for upfront. The boy was treated with various antibiotics for pneumonia and bronchiolitis, but he didn’t get well. For three months, I was in and out of the hospital until the week before we were to travel to the U.S.

He improved, but the day before we were to travel, the program manager called and told us the journey had been canceled because his condition wasn’t stable. This time I knew the devil had tightened his grip on my family. It reminded me of our previous experiences in the hospital. I felt cursed. This time, I cried even more than before.

But after a while, I consoled myself and surrendered everything to God. My husband rented a house for me in Kampala so that I would be close to the doctors.

Heart Surgery in the U.S.

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Though Samaritan’s Purse told me we would travel after five weeks had passed, I didn’t believe it. The next time I heard from the program manager, the five weeks had become two. I had learned to rest in the Lord. On August 28, we traveled to the U.S. Not only was my son going to be treated, but I was also going to see the famous United States of America.

Maine is beautiful and blessed with nature. Its people are hospitable, loving, generous, and, above all, charitable. They made me comfortable, and I patiently waited for Elijah’s surgery.

The night before surgery was another horrible time for me. Images of how the theater looked and how the doctor was going to split my son’s chest open kept looming in my head. I couldn’t believe my son was about to endure this risky venture. I hardly slept that night.

At 4:00 a.m., we prepared to go to the hospital. Whenever I would look at Elijah, tears would want to roll down my cheeks. I had to try my best not to let them because the doctors and nurses popped in so often. The last to come was an anesthetic doctor. He talked to us for a while about the procedures and then gave Elijah the medicine to make him sleep. Oblivious of what was about to happen, he dozed off. The doctor took him to the theater for the surgery.

This time, I couldn’t hold my tears; I handed him to God. I didn’t know what the outcome of the surgery would be. I cried and prayed to God to give the surgeon all the wisdom and knowledge to fix Elijah’s heart.

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Elijah with the translator who accompanied him to the U.S. (left) and his dad and mom

I was tired and was feeling cold. We had been told the surgery would be done at 11:00 a.m. Time ticked by slowly. I dozed off.

Suddenly, the doctors were waking me to tell me the good news about the surgery. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks, and I felt so warm. All I wanted was to see my son.

After a while, we were taken to see him, and he was hooked up to many machines. We stayed in the hospital until he recovered and we were discharged. I keep wondering what life would have been like if Samaritan’s Purse hadn’t taken Elijah as a beneficiary for surgery. On behalf of my family and myself, we’re grateful to everyone who has spent his or her energy, time, and resources to save Elijah’s heart.

I surrender his recovery to God because He is great and His love and mercy endures forever. I know He has great plans for Elijah because he has survived death many times. From the time he was in my womb, Elijah’s growth was threatened by complications. I thank my Heavenly Father. May your will be done in his life.

Give us the strength, wisdom, and knowledge to groom him morally and spiritually. Bless those who sacrificed and moved with us until this race was complete in the name of Jesus.