The first week in April is Genocide Remembrance in Rwanda. It is a time for reflection and a time to grieve as a country. In 2008 we were invited by the Rwanda Minister of Health to bring a cardiac surgical team to perform life-saving cardiac surgery young adults suffering from end- stage rheumatic heart disease. We began on April 6, and as the country grieved, Team Heart provided a new beginning to 11 patients. From the first year we selected patients illustrating critical medical need, and selected those making certain there was no bias of ethnicity, gender, religious or political party affiliation.
Now those 11 individuals, remarkable in their own right, have illustrated an ability and desire to return to a normal life and give back.
We know all are alive, but we have lost touch this past year only with Juma, the youngest who lived with relatives so he could have surgery. There were two patients from a refugee camp, only Joseph remains in a refugee camp in the eastern part of the country. The other, Jean Claude has broken the cycle of refugee living and supports himself by driving a moto taxi. He seems so competent and efficient and attentive to his job. Team Heart recalls so well the cycle of poverty we witnessed and we are delighted to see self-determination to break the cycle.
Jean Damascene is at University in India in a combined Masters program in computer sciences. He recently wrote to us on the fifth anniversary of his surgery , April 9, to thank us for this chance and mentioned the despair he felt before surgery was an option, and how happy he is now to be a part of the future. Jean Hariyarimana is now a barber and helps to support his younger sisters. Lovely Alice is taking care of her children, her farm and becomes more beautiful and strong each year. Many of the patients look to her for guidance. Celestine, our very first patient, now promoted, finished university and gives back on weekend as the treasurer for the cardiac surgical network. Samuson led the patient reunion in a wonderful song to celebrate Team Heart in February this year. Vedaste, is living in Kigali, operating a shop. Damien, works as a farmer in the agricultural region. Jean Paul is the backbone of Team Heart, works hard at his career and is an entrepreneur and always has time to do what is needed.
It is easy to see the effects of the genocide when you look at each patient individually. Educations interrupted. Health care decimated for 15 years. Relatives killed, leaving patients without their support systems of family and close friends. Many of our patients were orphans in their late teens and have had to rebuild a community around them. It is truly remarkable to observe the resilience of the human spirit. This is a group of remarkable people, as are all Rwandese survivors of the genocide. These patients have also had to contend with a major life illness. They have had to come through major surgery, and must monitor their illness and focus on a healthy life-style for the rest of their lives. This adds yet another significant challenge as they try to move on with their lives.