In April 2013, the International Services Office at Mayo Clinic received a copy of an article from a Gambian newspaper. In the article, a father begged for help for his 2-year-old daughter, Aisha. She was born with a ventricular septal defect – a hole in the heart that occurs in the wall that separates the heart’s lower chambers. Large ventricular septal defect require surgery to prevent complications.
Aisha needed a heart surgery that no hospitals in her home country could perform, and the family was unable to raise the funds for her to travel elsewhere for care. Eventually, her uncle reached out to Mayo Clinic for help.
Frank Cetta Jr., M.D., a Mayo Clinic pediatric cardiologist, reviewed the case and gladly accepted it. Then the International Appointment Office went to work to find a Mayo-sponsored charity that would fund her care. Cindy Kendall of the International Office called Kate Welp, a nurse in Cardiovascular Surgery, who also founded the nonprofit Hands for Humanity. Without hesitation, Welp agreed to sponsor Aisha and her family.
But that was just the start.
“When we agreed to help, we did not foresee so many bumps in the road,” Welp says. “We had never worked with a family from the African continent, but we kept moving forward, and it was pure joy to be a small part of this puzzle.”
Hands for Humanity raised the funds to bring Aisha and her family from Gambia to Rochester. They departed on Jan. 17. On Jan. 23, Joseph Dearani, M.D., a cardiovascular and transplant surgeon at Mayo Clinic, performed a successful surgery in consultation with Allison Cabalka, M.D., Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, and Eric Towe, M.D., Pediatric Cardiology.
The surgery went well. With her repaired heart pumping strong, Aisha had hope for a healthier future.
“Aisha's cardiac defect had caused significant failure to thrive, so she was very small,” says Dr. Cabalka. “Even with that, her development was entirely normal, and she was quite delightful and engaging. She smiled nonstop."
While Aisha was recovering in intensive care, her father mentioned his concern for her vision in one eye. Del Wibben, Aisha’s cardiovascular surgery intensive care nurse at the time, talked with Aisha’s cardiologist. Soon, Aisha had an appointment with Brian Mohney, M.D., a Mayo ophthalmologist.
Aisha soon donned a new pair of glasses and had a whole new way of looking at the world.
When the family returned to Gambia with a new outlook, Aisha’s uncle penned this heartfelt note (edited for length) to the “village” that saved his niece:
We knocked many doors to help save Aisha’s life, but the doors were shut in our face … The last door we knocked was where we found the angels of Mayo Clinic. These total strangers could not have been but angels. They have not seen or known Aisha, but believed in their hearts that she deserves help. They did not only provide medical care, but also transportation, accommodation, feeding, clothing, and, yes, social visitation …
There are so many people to thank, including the doctors and the medical staff of Mayo Clinic, Hands for Humanity, and friends and families of the members, and many other individuals in Gambia and Senegal. Thank you to each and every one of you for everything you have done. Aisha’s family cannot thank you enough …
You have made a difference … there are still angels amongst us. And, you all are certainly angels.