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One surgery launches Gift of Life and 35,000 more in Manhasset

Grace Agwaru and Robbie Donno became lifelong friends

Grace Agwaru and Robbie Donno became lifelong friends after Agwaru received cardiac surgery as a child through Gift of Life, a Rotary nonprofit, some 40 years ago. Photo Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

What began with one cardiac surgery at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill to save a 5-year-old Ugandan girl has morphed into more than 35,000 life-giving operations around the world, largely due to one man: Robbie Donno of Manhasset. The operations have been organized and sponsored by Gift of Life International, a program of Rotary International begun by Donno 44 years ago.

“When people ask my profession, I say, ‘I’m a garbage man, and I do heart surgery on the side,’” quipped Donno, 73, a longtime Rotarian and owner of a solid waste business in New Jersey.

In addition to supporting food banks, school scholarships, veterans and other causes, Rotary International has set impressive goals, such as tackling the scourge of polio in 1985, Donno said, noting there were just over 100 new cases of polio in the world last year.

“Basically, the effort over these 30 some odd years has led to almost complete eradication of polio in the world,” he said.  

Gift of Life begins

From the age of 14, Donno reluctantly accompanied his dad, Dante, to meetings at the Manhasset Rotary Club. When his dad died a decade later and Robbie took over the family business, he joined Rotary, too.

“I felt I had to keep my pulse on the finger of the community,” Donno explained. “So I joined, and I saw they were doing really good things, on a local level mostly.”

Donno was called to action in December 1973, when he read an article in Rotarian Magazine about Margaret Rose, a young Ugandan woman whose face was severely disfigured by a hyena attack. He immediately wanted to get her the reconstructive surgery she needed.

“Nobody ever did anything like this before, but I was Dante’s son,” he said of arranging an international surgery. “So they couldn’t say no to me. I leveraged that.”

By the time his Rotary Club had submitted the mandatory paperwork, Rose had been treated at an Australian hospital. The Kampala Rotary Club in Uganda asked Donno if the club would instead consider treating Grace Agwaru, a 5-year-old with the congenital heart condition.

When father and daughter arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1975, Donno, then president of the Manhasset club, was there to greet them.

Grace’s father, Sylvester, “takes a look at me. And I’m 29 years old. I got wide lapels and a big mustache, long hair. It wasn’t the image of a Rotarian that he expected,” Donno said. Later on, Donno said, Sylvester admitted that upon seeing Donno, he nearly turned around and got back on the plane.

Donno enlisted his mother, Stella, to host the Agwarus before the surgery and throughout Grace’s monthlong convalescence, forging a lifelong bond between the families.

“At the end of the day, that feeling I got from Sylvester changed the whole perspective of life, of what’s meaningful,” Donno said. When the Agwarus departed after the surgery and convalescence, Donno recalled, he stood outside the terminal, reflecting on the enormity of what had transpired and said to himself, "If I die today, my life has been worth living."  

At a news conference about Grace's surgery, Donno used the term "giving the gift of life," and the name stuck. In 2003, Rotary International formed Gift of Life International to help coordinate efforts around the world.

Forty-four years later Donno, whose three-year term as director of Gift of Life International just ended, marvels that for the past decade Agwaru has been speaking at Rotary Clubs around the world as a global ambassador.

“I have a 44-year history with this woman, who’s now giving back to other people. That’s a joy!” Donno exclaimed.

A new endeavor

About 10 years ago, Gift of Life changed its model to begin developing programs in other countries where medical facilities can offer cardiac surgery, meaning children no longer have to endure the added trauma of traveling far from home. The Uganda Heart Institute in Kampala, the first satellite center, does 200 to 250 pediatric cardiac surgeries a year.

“It’s about empowering people. It’s about economic development,” Donno said.

Robina Nakabuye, the second child whose surgery was sponsored by Gift of Life in 1976, is now a grandmother who works for the cardiologist at the Uganda Heart Institute.

“We’re building generations,” Donno remarked. “You save a life, and it impacts everybody else.”

Agwaru, 49, who recently spent five weeks in New York and New Jersey making presentations to Rotary Clubs and taking part in the Rotary Zone Institute, in Niagara Falls, which provides members leadership training, said her surgery has served as an abiding inspiration for her life.

“Right from my childhood, I’ve always wanted to give back to Rotary and Gift of Life,” said Agwaru, who lives in Kampala and works as a liaison for families in need of surgery, procuring sponsorships for travel abroad for more complex surgeries.

“So this really is like my story, and I’m seeing my story in these children,” Agwaru said.

Added Donno, “There’s an old saying, ‘Children are like wet cement: Everything that lands on them makes an impression,’ We fixed Grace’s heart, but we made an impression on her spiritual heart. She wants to help. Same with Robina.”

Since 2010, El Salvador’s Hospital Benjamin Bloom, supported by local Rotary Clubs and Latidos de Esperanza, has been performing about 250 pediatric cardiac surgeries annually. Programs supported by Gift of Life are in development in Romania and Jamaica, both of which will eventually have training centers and hubs for areas beyond their borders.

“It’s challenging,” Donno noted. “When we do our presentations, for the most part, it sounds like a piece of cake. It’s not. There are a lot of moving parts. And you have to have a real cooperative group of people to make it happen.”

Commending Donno’s commitment to the organization, Rob Raylman, CEO of Gift of Life International, said, "Robbie Donno provides a great vision for our organization to continue evolving and increasing our impact on the lives of children with heart disease from emerging countries."  

Donno recently got involved with the Brentwood community through Evelyn Rodriguez, whose daughter Kayla Cuevas is believed to have been killed by MS-13 gang members in 2016 along with her friend Nisa Mickens.

Evelyn Rodriguez, who was run over on the two-year anniversary of her daughter’s death while visiting a memorial to the girls, had wanted to become a spokeswoman for Gift of Life in memory of her daughter, Donno explained.

“Evelyn was an extraordinary woman in so many ways,” said Donno, who along with Agwaru attended a Sept. 15 fundraiser for Gift of Life and a Brentwood High School girls basketball team scholarship in memory of Cuevas and Rodriguez.

Liz Cordero, who helped run the fundraiser said, “Robbie’s work — it’s just beautiful: to see that this humanitarian effort is being done.”

Cordero, 56, a parent liaison for the Community School at Brentwood Freshman Center, said that in addition to saving lives, Gift of Life builds relationships.

“That’s one of the most crucial things,” Cordero said. “One family at a time is being touched in so many ways. … then that trickles down to towns, communities. It’s building community.”

A lifelong commitment

Robbie Donno has been married for 50 years to Barbara Donno, the mayor of Plandome Manor for 121/2 years. They have two children, Jackie Munroe, 39, and Matthew Donno, 35, also a member of Manhasset Rotary.

Both of his children accompanied their dad to Rotary events throughout their childhoods and have helped organize fundraisers on behalf of Gift of Life International.

"He set the bar so high that it's almost impossible to reach," said Munroe, who lives in upstate Guilderland. "He feels a connection to each of these kids and each time he's still brought to tears, as if it's the first time he's done this. And he's done this a thousand times."

Dr. Sean Levchuck, 57, chairman of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital, calls Donno “an amazing guy.”

“The beautiful thing about the Gift of Life is that it’s really medicine for all the right reasons,” said Levchuck, who has performed 10 to 15 surgeries a year for Gift of Life in the past 22 years. “You’re reaching out to help somebody less fortunate. You’re reaching out to do some good where people really need it. It’s one of those organizations that really doesn’t care who gets the credit, as long as it gets done.”

Deflecting such praise, Donno talks about the goodness in everyone.

“It’s a matter of exposing it. In everybody’s heart, there’s a good spot and it’s about getting them to realize who they are,” he said.

Giving, he said, is circular, impacting the giver as well as the recipient.

“I know that people have extreme joy in the love that they’re able to give these children. The joy they have in the giving, is a gift,” he said, adding, “I’ve joked that we should call it ‘Gifts of Life.’ The gifts keep giving.”

By the numbers

According to Gift of Life International:

1.3 million children (just under 1%) are born each year with congenital heart defects

93% of children around the world don’t have access to medical care to cure heart disease

35,120 children have been saved through Rotary International’s Gift of Life

81 different countries are represented by the children who undergo Gift of Life heart surgeries

200 countries have Rotary Clubs

1.2 million-plus Rotarians belong to 35,000 Rotary Clubs

“This is the platform that Gift of Life operates in,” says Robbie Donno. “Rotary is an army.”

To learn more or donate, visit giftoflifeinternational.org

— Arlene Gross

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