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When Erneste Simpunga stepped off the airplane at Kigali Airport last month, the 18-year-old was much healthier—with a regular heart rate and an additional 20 pounds of muscle—than when he left his native Rwanda in July.
Simpunga had double valve replacement surgery at BWH in August and stayed with Chief of Cardiac Surgery R. Morton “Chip” Bolman, MD, and his wife, Team Heart Coordinator Ceeya Patton-Bolman, RN, during a four-month journey back to health. Weekend visits and outings with other Team Heart members and neighbors helped him take advantage of Boston and surrounding areas.
“I was not afraid to come here for surgery; I was excited,” said Simpunga, whose heart was so weak for the past three years that he became breathless after walking for only a few minutes.
Members of BWH’s Team Heart met Simpunga during a trip to Rwanda last April to begin collaborating for a heart surgery program there. Like most of the Team Heart patients, Simpunga suffered damage to his heart valves as a result of rheumatic fever, caused by untreated strep throat.
“His heart failure was so bad that surgery was too much of a risk for him in Rwanda, where we didn’t have the capacity to support him long-term if needed,” Chip Bolman said.
“It devastated most of us to tell Erneste we couldn’t fix his heart,” said Leslie Sabatino, RN, of the Cardiac Surgery ICU, who hosted Simpunga for part of his stay in Boston. “Then our prayers were answered.”
The Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation, based in Braintree, generously offered to fund the cost of the surgery at BWH, and Simpunga was flown to Boston. Several weeks later, Bolman and his team performed a successful double valve replacement. During the next few months, Simpunga recovered remarkably, gaining weight and exercising.
“You couldn’t hold him down,” Bolman said. “He was biking between 12 and 18 miles by the end of November.”
Simpunga was too sick to attend school for the past three years, but the Bolmans’ neighbor, Browne, Buckingham and Nichols Senior Class dean Louise Makrauer, arranged for him to take classes when he was healthy enough. Ceeya Bolman traveled to Rwanda with Simpunga and looked at a potential boarding school for him to attend. “We are thrilled for him to embrace his future with new hope, reunite with his family and attend school again,” she said.
Education is extremely important to Simpunga. “He had no interest in watching TV at all while he was here,” Chip Bolman said. “He spent every waking minute on the computer, studying physics, chemistry, math and English.”
Simpunga has big goals, partly inspired by those he met at BWH. “I want to be a doctor,” he said. “I want to help others the way I was helped.”
Read more about his homecoming at http://teamheart.blogspot.com