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Ugandan woman reunites with team who saved her heart

Thirty-three years ago, Robinah Nakabuye was flown from Uganda to a Long Island hospital for open-heart surgery, an operation that doctors said saved her life.

This month, Nabakye, 45, returned to St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill to replace the defibrillator that was implanted in her heart during a second visit several years ago.

Wednesday, Nabakye was reunited with those who played a role in giving her a second chance at life, including the founder of the nonprofit group Gift of Life, which made it possible for her to get the treatment, and Dr. Filippo Balboni, the pediatric cardiologist who cared for her in 1976.

"God bless you so much for what you've done," Nakabuye said at a news conference at St. Francis Hospital.

"I felt great because nature had given her a heart that was severely defective, but nevertheless, we were able to literally reconstruct the heart," said Balboni, 81, of Garden City, the father of Michael Balboni, a former New York State senator. "That allowed her not only to live, but grow."

Nakabuye has been working at the Ugandan Heart Institute, helping children who also suffer from congenital heart diseases.

The nonprofit Gift of Life International, based in Great Neck, operates in conjunction with Rotary International to bring children to the United States for lifesaving surgeries.

Robert Donno, the group's chairman and founder, announced Wednesday that it plans to send 30 Ugandan children to hospitals around the world for free medical help.

"Without our help, they would have perished," Donno said.

On May 6, Donno will travel to Uganda, where he will unveil the new program, which will cost the organization more than $2.5 million, he said. The money comes mainly from donations and fundraising efforts.

Since 1975, when Donno and several members of the Manhasset Rotary Club helped the first child receive treatment, 10,000 children have been helped through Gift of Life and Gift of Life International.

St. Francis Hospital, which has treated children through both programs for more than three decades, donates medical services, including doctors' time and expertise.

"It was part of the hospital's mission to help people," said Dr. Alan Guerci, president and chief executive of St. Francis Hospital. "Whether those people are American-born or foreign-born, we don't care."


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