Ugandan girl to return home happy and healthy after Louisville surgeons repair her heart

Norton Children’s Heart Institute team repaired a ventricular septal defect — a hole in the heart — of 2-year-old whose brother died from the same condition.

Two-year-old Gift Mbwali and her mother traveled more than 7,600 miles from their home in Uganda to Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, where surgeons repaired a heart defect she has lived with since birth.

Her family was well aware of the high stakes. Her older brother, Patrick, made the same journey in 2017 to have a similar defect repaired. But by the time Patrick arrived, he was too frail for surgery and the procedure never took place.

Gift was born with a ventricular septal defect. Often known as a VSD, it is a hole in the wall between the two lower chambers of the heart. According to Brian Holland, M.D., chief of pediatric cardiology at University of Louisville and co-director at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, a VSD is a relatively common defect that sometimes can be managed with medication and correct itself as the child grows. But that wasn’t the case for Gift.

“In more extreme cases of VSD similar to Gift’s, a child can have trouble gaining weight, experience fatigue and not be able to run and play similar to her peers. Some children may need surgical intervention to close the hole,” Dr. Holland said. “In these cases, the heart is working overtime because of the extra blood passing through the hole, leading to heart failure for the child.”

VSD surgery within a week of arrival

Gift’s family made their way to Kentucky in August. Within days, Dr. Holland presented her case to the Norton Children’s Heart Institute Heart Board to plan her treatment.

“The Heart Board is a collection of specialty providers at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, including pediatric cardiac surgery, cardiac intensive care, cardiac anesthesia and pediatric cardiology,” Dr. Holland said. “Each child’s case is reviewed, and a collective decision is made on the next steps in the treatment plan. For Gift, the decision to have surgery to repair the heart was made quickly and she had her surgery within the week.”

Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon with Norton Children’s Hospital and UofL Physicians, performed the surgery. It went well, and since then Gift has been gaining weight and progressing with physical activity and endurance.

Gift’s trip to the U.S. was sponsored by Healing the Children Kentucky Chapter, a nonprofit organization that helps underserved children around the world get urgently needed medical care not available close to their home. Gift and her mother, Elizabeth, are staying with a host family provided by Healing the Children. They will be in the U.S. for a few more weeks as Gift recovers under the guidance of Dr. Holland and other specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute.

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“Norton Children’s Hospital has partnered with Healing the Children Kentucky Chapter for many years to provide lifesaving treatment for children across the globe,” said Mark McDonald, M.D., medical director of Norton Children’s Hospital. “The physicians participating in cases like Gift’s volunteer their time, and, as part of a commitment to improving the health of our community, Norton Healthcare donates the infrastructure and resources to care for the child.”

With the VSD repair successful, Dr. Holland and the Heart Board are excited to see Gift return to Uganda happy and healthy.

“We expect Gift will go on to lead a full, normal life, and will be able to get the follow-up she needs close to home in Uganda,” Dr. Holland said. “Everyone is so happy to see Gift thrive. It was an honor for the team at Norton Children’s Heart Institute that her family trusted us and gave us the opportunity to take care of her.”