Health & Medicine

Their baby needed life-saving surgery in Uganda. How they found help in Sacramento

When Viola Lwoga learned her baby had a heart defect that required open heart surgery, she couldn't eat for days. When she broke the news to her husband, Douglas, he passed out.

"We lost hope," Lwoga said through a translator. "We thought she was going to die."

She never thought she would find help half a world away in Sacramento.

The Lwogas live in the Luwero District of Uganda, where experts who could perform the needed surgery are nonexistent. Traveling abroad to find someone who could fix the ventricular septal defect in Davina Mirembe's heart was not an option, either – it was too expensive.

A cardiologist told Viola Lwoga about Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian aid organization that matches children in need of life-saving operations with willing hospitals in North America. The group had found a match for Davina – Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento – and would pay for their airfare.

When she heard the news, "I jumped up and down with joy," Lwoga said. "I told everybody that my child is finally going to receive help."

Lwoga and her 20-month-old baby arrived in the United States on May 20, and are staying with a host family in West Sacramento.

Dr. Teimour Nasirov performed Davina's open heart surgery on May 24, and described the operation as a "total success." Davina was discharged from the hospital just four days later, and is already active and energetic.

The entire cost of Davina's medical care, which Sutter spokesman Gary Zavoral said was more than $100,000, was paid for by Sutter, and Davina's nurses, doctors, cardiologists and surgeons donated their time.

"Our family felt humbled ... that people came from America and wanted to help, at no cost," Lwoga said.

If she hadn't been treated, Davina could have died, according to Dr. Stan Wright, a cardiologist involved with the surgery. Even if she survived to adulthood, Wright said, "her activity tolerance, her ability to exert herself" and her growth could have been affected. She likely would not have survived past her 30s, he added.

Before her surgery, Davina had difficulty breathing, little appetite, low energy and struggled to sleep. Now, her mother says, all those problems have gone away. She will be able to live a normal life, Wright said.

"She's a different child, in a good way," Lwoga said.


Lwoga's Swahili-English translator, Sheena Basemera, is familiar with Lwoga's feeling of relief. Growing up in Kampala, Uganda, Basemera was not able to play or go to school like other children. She was tired all the time, and had "excruciating" heart palpitations every day.

"I spent most of my day lying on mats or a piece of cloth and watching my brothers running up and down and doing their own thing," she said. "I was not able to do that because I didn't have the strength."

Basemera, who lived with her aunt, told her several times over the years that something was wrong with her chest and heart. But her aunt, a physiotherapist, dismissed the concerns. One day, Basemera was visiting her aunt at the hospital and saw a doctor listening to a kid's chest with a stethoscope. She asked the doctor to listen to her own heart.

"The doctor thought we were playing doctor-patient, but then I see her facial expression change," she recalled. "She goes to my aunt and tells her there's something wrong."

Basemera saw a cardiologist, and discovered she had an atrial septal defect – a hole in her heart. Just like Davina, she was matched with a U.S. hospital through Samaritan's Purse, and flew to Washington, D.C., for surgery when she was 15. She hasn't had problems with her heart since, she said.

"We thought later on, they would give us a bill and ask us to pay a certain amount of money for the surgery. Somehow it was too good to be true," Basemera said. "And then we went back home, and the bill never came."

Basemera said people in Uganda were amazed.

"They didn't understand how someone from America would want to take a child from Africa and extend a hand of help to someone they don't know," she said.

Now, 13 years later, Basemera lives in North Carolina and works as a spokeswoman for the organization that saved her.


Davina's surgery would not have been possible without a host family in West Sacramento taking her in. Luckily for her, Donna and Rodney Byrd jumped at the opportunity, which they heard about through their church.

"It's been a blessing to be a part of this story," Donna Byrd said.

Also integral to Davina's recovery was Nasirov, her surgeon, who started the process by telling Samaritan's Purse that he was interested in donating a surgery.

"I generally have been involved with mission work, so it’s part of who I am," Nasirov explained. “It is very rewarding to be able to help somebody and influence their lifespan.”

Davina will return to Nasirov's office Thursday for a check-up, and won't return to Uganda until the end of June. Her mother is eager to get home.

"I can't wait to show the miracle that I have received from here," Lwoga said, "and show people that Davina is now doing fine."

Kellen Browning: 916-321-1293, @Kellen_Browning