The call came early morning.
It was an invite to Tenwek Mission Hospital to witness doctors performing a historic open heart surgery.
For three straight hours, I witnessed doctors operate on the heart of a seven-year-old child, whom I later learnt was the last patient in an operation that had taken two weeks and conducted by doctors from Kenya and the US.
The maiden heart surgery at the hospital had been done in November 2008 on 12 patients.
Most of the patients admitted had Down’s syndrome and rheumatic heart diseases.
“This year, 20 patients – all of them children with the oldest being 13 years – underwent successful corrective heart surgeries,” Mr Geoffrey Langat, the hospital CEO said.
Tribulations shared by the patients and their relatives were heart-wrenching.
Mr Simon Kiptanui Ruto, a resident of Ndalat in Nandi County, had for seven years been seeking treatment for his daughter in vain.
Eventually, the family was referred to Eldoret’s Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH) for further tests.
At MTRH, doctors referred them to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for specialised attention.
But the family could not raise the required funds.
“I learnt from a relative of the surgeries at Tenwek Hospital and I chose to give it a try,” Mr Ruto stated.
“I travelled by matatu from Nandi to Bomet County and my child underwent screening and several tests before she was booked for the life-saving operation” Mr Ruto stated.
His hands clasped together, and seemingly unbothered with the tears dropping into his arms, Mr Ruto did not take his eyes off the frail looking child as she was operated on.
“I am hungry, I am very hungry. I need food,” was the only thing she said after the surgery.
Father and daughter were happy and thanked the doctors.
Mr Jacob Machak, a resident of Ruweng State in Southern Sudan, brought his eight-month-old daughter to Tenwek Hospital for a similar operation.
“Owing to the war in South Sudan, I could not find a health facility that could handle the complex heart condition threatening the life of my daughter,” Mr Machak said.
He was referred to Tenwek by volunteers working for Samaritan Purse, an international NGO started by the world renown evangelist Bill Graham.
The NGO has been instrumental in funding the hospital for the last 80 years.
“We hiked lifts from trucks in South Sudan to Uganda then entered Kenya through Malaba and found our way to Tenwek using matatus.
A series of tests were performed before the child was put in the operation list. But we had to wait for four months before surgery was done,” Mr Machak said.
The hospital is a pioneer in open heart surgery – a highly specialised medical field traditionally considered a preserve for hospitals in developed countries and major cities.
Dr Carol Spears, the acting chief of surgery at the hospital, said highly qualified medical specialists trained locally and abroad are in the team, with two young cardiothoracic surgeons – Dr Agneta Odera and Dr Areka Fekadu – having recently received further training in the US.
“In the last 10 years, 550 patients with various congenital heart complications have undergone surgery with 200 of them being children,” Dr Odera stated.
Dr Odera added, “We have realised 85 per cent success rate which compares well with similar operations in Western countries.”
She noted that the most complicated case was of a child born with multiple defects of the heart.
Blood vessels with or without oxygen were not drawing in the right directions with the heart having multiple holes.
“We [stopped] the heart and operated on it. It took a lot of time to revive it after the operation. It is a miracle he survived. The boy is fully recovered and is an active footballer whose dream is to be a cardiologist,” Dr Odera stated.
Dr Fekadu said, “It is exciting and satisfying in life when you successfully fix somebody’s defective heart in a rural facility especially when you give a second chance in life to patients who had no hope but just awaiting death as they could not raise money for treatment.”