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Ugandan children get new lease on life at D.C. hospital

Monday - 5/21/2012, 12:52pm  ET

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Dr. Charlie Berul works on a patient in the cardiac cath lab at Children's National Medical Center. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)
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Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Twelve-year-old Darwin Wafoymungu could never do the simple things most boys his age could do.

But now, he's a kid with a plan.

"I want to play," Darwin says.

Darwin's mom, Betty Acken, looks around his room at Children's National Medical Center as if she's landed in another world. They've traveled from a village in Uganda to Washington, D.C. where a group of strangers fixed her son's heart.

Acken whispers to an interpreter and smiles.

"She feels so grateful and so happy about everything," says the interpreter. "He is a miracle child and a miracle boy!"

Darwin is one of two Ugandan children currently at the D.C. hospital for treatment, part of a volunteer effort by doctors at Children's to improve pediatric cardiac care in Uganda. The doctors are regular visitors to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where they diagnose cases, perform surgeries and provide specialized training.

The program was started by Dr. Craig Sable, director of Echocardiology at Children's. He first went to Uganda on his own in 2002 when he screened 50 kids for heart problems, and brought six back for surgery.

At first, the emphasis was on improving the ability of doctors in Uganda to diagnose heart issues. But through the years, the program has evolved to the point where the Ugandans are being trained to perform ever more complex operations, and the infrastructure for more sophisticated treatment is falling into place.

Sable says it's a labor of love for the Children's team.

"It is very different from here, where most children are going to get the health care they need one way or another," Sable says. "There, you know you are helping someone who may not otherwise get help."

Sable says most of the doctors who travel to Uganda form a special bond with the country and the people. He says they are seeing a small education program grow into a model for other developing countries.

"We think by building a sustainable program in East Africa, we may be able to develop a blueprint to help a lot of these children around the world," Sable says.

Dr. Charlie Berul, chief of Cardiology at Children's, went to Uganda for the first time in February, where he met 3-year-old Myron Kinobe and his family. Myron had a problem with his heart rhythm that couldn't be fixed in Uganda, and in a delicate procedure at Children's, Berul inserted tiny catheters into the toddler's legs and used computer images to guide them to the trouble spot.

"With this procedure, we find the abnormal trouble spot and we either heat or freeze that spot," Berul says. "While protecting the rest of the inside of the heart muscle."

Berul says the procedure is fairly common at the hospital.

"We do this routinely in children and teenagers. But in East Africa, it is not even done in adults."

Myron's cardiac catheterization went extremely well, according to the medical team. His mother, Deborah Aguno, says he can now "be a really happy child and live like other children."

A non-profit group called Samaritan's Purse made the arrangements to bring the Ugandan children and their mothers to Washington for treatment. The doctors at Children's provided their services free of charge, and even some of the catheters were donated by manufacturers.

Samaritan's Purse volunteer Marsha Duckwitz hosted the two families at her Sterling, Va. home during their month-long stay, and was a constant presence at the hospital.

"I feel honored just to be a pat of it," Duckwitz says. "These guys are doing fantastic things ... and it is just amazing to see these miracles happen."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)