MALTA — Edison Kasajja was overwhelmed. His 30-month-old child Mark had two holes in his heart and the pills that he was given at a hospital in Uganda where they live were not relieving his condition.
“Mark was growing thin with his stomach enlarging,” Kasajja wrote in an email. “After a while we returned Mark to hospital for review where we were told that his condition necessitated a heart surgery at the Uganda Heart Institute and it would cost us 20 million Uganda shillings.” In U.S. dollars, that’s $5,682. As a teacher, Kasajja’s annual salary is $1,704. To save the money for surgery would take years and Mark didn’t have them.
Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, Paul Phillips was cutting into a cheese omelet in the weekly meeting of the Malta Sunrise Rotary Club. The speaker that morning was Rob Raylman of Gift of Life International, a New York-based organization that has, since 1975, provided care for more than 40,000 children with heart disease in 80 countries.
Phillips, an 18-year volunteer with AIDS Orphan Education Trust Uganda that funds the school where Kasajja worked, listened and had an epiphany — connect Kasajja with Raylman’s nonprofit and maybe the toddler could be saved.
“After the speech at Rotary, I contacted the folks in Uganda to see if I could try to get surgery for the boy,” the Malta man said. “Then I contacted the foundation. It was all covered by the foundation and Mark’s doing great.”
Kasajja and his wife Martha are relieved that Mark’s Nov. 25 surgery was a success.
“Many times while I was overwhelmed by Mark’s condition, I would burst into tears from stress and anxiety,” Kasajja wrote in a letter to AOET. “I was nervous and anxious myself, trying to keep my son (from) feeling overwhelmed by the implication of the medical problem he had. I am so excited and so grateful that AOET Uganda through Paul Phillips connected Mark to Gift of Life International that provided funds for Mark’s lifesaving surgery.”
The situation is among several successes area residents have aiding people in the African country. The Saratoga Springs area is home to dozens of volunteers who regularly visit Uganda with AOET. Their mission includes the Rehaboth Integrated Schools where Kasajja teaches as well as a permanent home for AIDS orphans and a program to educate young people to become teachers.
Phillips, who is a retired director of financial aid at the California State University San Marco, said the organization accepts all who want to help, regardless of skills.
“Saratoga is a real hot bed for volunteers for the organization,” Phillips said. “We have the second largest number of sponsors in the country. We have 150 who sponsor children and about 100 people who volunteer and have gone over to Uganda. And we have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Ernest Masaaba, the AOET’s program director in Uganda, said much of the work volunteers do is aimed at meeting “the needs of the vulnerable groups through education, health, community empowerment and psych-social services.”
Masaaba said this was the first time, however, that AOET was able to secure funding for heart surgery — thanks to Phillips and Raylman.
“If Mark had not gotten a surgery he would develop a rupture in the septum, this would cause further weakening of the heart and lead to heart failure and eventually he would die,” Masaaba said. “Mark is doing well, his health status has greatly improved after the heart surgery, he has started putting on weight and plays like any other normal child.”
Raylman too is happy to help as it is his nonprofit’s mission: to provide lifesaving cardiac treatment to children in need in developing countries.
“There is a Global Crisis concerning children born with congenital heart defects,” Ralyman said. “(A total of) 1.2 million are born every year, 93 percent are born in a country that cannot care for them. Congenital heart defects are the number one birth defect. One out of every 100 live births is a child with congenital heart defects. Where a child is born should not dictate whether they live or die.”
Phillips said he and his wife will continue to work with AOET, making return trips to Uganda. He hopes even more volunteers will join in.
“We have a philosophy for the teams,” Phillips said of AOET. “We don’t try to screen for specific skills. We just put the word out, if you are interested and we have never turned anyone down. We have had remarkable success of the quality of folks who go over.”
But helping to save a child’s life was especially gratifying.
“Over the years, we have done so much in Uganda,” he said. “This is right up there with the things we are most proud of and most pleased with. The appreciation from the family was very endearing and so great. I’m hopeful we can continue to help others in the same situation.”
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Brenda Small is the Operations Consultant at Gift of Life International. She assumed this role in 2012.
Brenda was inspired to help children in need with heart disease after her third child was born with a complex heart defect and underwent successful open-heart surgery in her first year of life. Brenda learned of Gift of Life International in 2006 at which time she established Gift of Life Los Angeles where she holds the position of President. Between 2008 and 2012, Brenda volunteered her time to help with Gift of Life International in addition to running Gift of Life Los Angeles.
From 2012 to 2022, Brenda held the position of Director of Operations for Gift of Life International. Today, she continues this lifesaving work as Operations Consultant. Brenda also implemented the Nutritional Program in El Salvador in 2008 which has now provided nutritional support to more than 250 children and their families. Brenda has traveled with many of the Gift of Life training teams and witnessed these precious lives being saved.