Grace Agwaru, a Gift of Life recipient, speaks at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. She came to the hospital from Uganda for lifesaving heart surgery when she was 5. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Every aspect of Grace Agwaru's life has been shaped by the lifesaving heart surgery she received when she was just 5 years old through a special Rotarian-based program that brought her and her father from Uganda to St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn.

"This is the place where my life was saved," Agwaru, now 52, said during remarks on the hospital's front lawn celebrating the Gift of Life Inc. program. She was the first recipient 47 years ago. 

Gift of Life Inc. started in 1975 when the Rotary Club of Manhasset partnered with the Rotary Club of Kampala, Uganda to bring a young Agwaru and her father, Silvester Agwaru, to St. Francis for the surgery.

The Gift of Life Inc, the original Gift of Life organization, and its 84 affiliated programs around the world, which includes Gift of Life International, has helped 44,000 children from 80 countries, according to the organization's fact sheet.

During the past 12 months, the global network of Gift of Life has provided care to more than 4,000 children, which the organization said makes it the largest humanitarian group in the world providing care to children with heart disease in developing countries.

Robbie Donno, founder and president of Gift of Life International, was a young member of the Rotary Club in Manhasset in 1975 when he and others sought to help young Agwaru.

"I had read an article in the Rotarian magazine about a child that needed help from Uganda." Donno said he consulted with others in the Rotary Club of Manhasset to figure out how to help Grace Agwaru.

"We went through the process of getting diagnostics and what not," Donno said, adding that this was a time when communications between countries took two months. "It took us about, I'm going to say, over a year before we finally put everything together."

Donno saved notes from that time, recalling, "I went to pick her up at the airport on Oct. 28, 1975." Donno said Agwaru's father "expected to meet at the airport a Rotarian who looks like me now [rather] than a 29-year-old. I looked like I belonged to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young more than a Rotary Club member." Later, he said Grace Agwaru's father told him he was concerned that Grace might not survive the surgery to go back home with him.

But after he talked with Dr. Filippo Balboni, who along with Dr. Norman Thompson were her physicians at St. Francis, Grace Agwaru recalled, her father came to believe "my life was going to be saved."

Donno said Dr. Balboni, who died in 2018, "set the stage, set the culture in the hospital" for the program. And, he said, Dr. Sean Levchuck, chairman of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis, has taken up Dr. Balboni's mantle in working with the Gift of Life program since 1997.

Dr. Levchuck said he does it because "If everybody pitched in and did their part, the world's a better place. I feel like I was put here for a reason, and you have to give back."

Grace Agwaru said "every decision I make has been based on this," she said of the life-sustaining surgery she received. "I made sure I did well in my studies." Her life, she said, has been about helping people. She said she and her father established a Rotary Club in her hometown of Soroti, Uganda. She has also worked in the past with Gift of Life organization to help other children.

"I have been able to see what my parents went through to get help" for her, Agwaru said. Her father is 84 years old; her mother, Pulcheria, died in 2019. "My parents were very, very grateful for my surgery and all the help that was offered to me. So they always talked about my story from childhood. Listening to them speak about it has inspired me a lot. So it’s from what they told me I was always inspired to be able to give back — to my parents and also to give back to Rotary and to communities." 

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