Sporting a borrowed T-shirt and a wide toothy grin, 5-year-old Aagi stepped out of the doors of Health City Cayman Islands for the final time on Monday.
After a tumultuous nine months during which he has been through a pandemic, an earthquake, a hurricane and life-saving surgery to fix a hole in his heart, the youngster is on his way home.
Aagi, whose family are nomadic herdsmen in rural Mongolia, was expected to stay in Cayman for just six weeks.
The child, whose full name is Altangerel Chogdon, arrived on the island in January with a group of children selected by international charity Samaritan’s Purse to receive emergency operations in Cayman.
Health City hospital partners with the organisation to provide surgeries for youngsters with heart conditions from some of the most remote areas in the world.
Complications with Aagi’s treatment meant the procedure was delayed and he became stuck in Cayman, along with his mother Amarjargal Chuluunbaatar, known as Jagaawa, and an interpreter, when the coronavirus hit and the islands’ borders were locked down.
“I had a strong feeling of fear,” his mother said. “l didn’t know if we would ever get back to Mongolia and see my family again.”
The waiting was the hardest part. Aagi had dental issues which delayed the operation.
Then Cayman went into lockdown and there was no way to get the treatment he needed.
The boy and his family leaned on the support of host family Lovenia and Mario Ebanks who brought them food and took them to the shops on their ‘letter days’ during the shelter-in-place restrictions.
The translator interpreted the televised press conferences and explained the situation.
“It was very stressful,” said Jagaawa. “It was not clear whether it was going to happen for my baby.”
Once the lockdown lifted, it took some months to find a dentist who could do the treatment Aagi needed.
With that completed, paediatric cardiologist Dr. Sripadh Upadhya went ahead with the surgery in early September.
“Aagi is a wonderful 5-year-old boy,” said Upadhya. “He is all fixed up and ready to go home. He is quite energetic and enthusiastic and he has recovered extremely well.”
Before the operation, Aagi would become out-of-breath quickly, his features turning blue if he tried to run. Left untreated, his condition would have caused unmanageable problems and potentially fatal lung injuries later in life.
Upadhya said the surgery would enable the boy to live a regular life.
For Aagi and his family, that means a return to the Mongolian steppe were they herd goats, sheep and cattle in vast expanses of land, living in yurts – round tents covered in felt.
“We have everything except camels and we travel with the animals from place to place,” said Jagaawa.
Returning home will be bittersweet after nine months in Cayman.
“There have been many challenges but more good days because of the people we have met in the Cayman Islands,” Jagaawa said. “Because of their help, I was able to overcome every obstacle. These people were our helpers, providers and protectors – whatever happened, they were by our side ready to help.”
Lovenia Ebanks said she felt it was part of her duty to help people when she could. Host families sometimes have visiting patients stay with them, but in this case, because of the length of the stay, Aagi and his family lived at a mission house in Savannah.
“We supply the food and we drive them around and host them on island,” she said. “Normally, it is for six weeks, but this time it has been nine-and-a-half months. They have become like family.”
Aagi was one of a small group of children identified through health screenings in Mongolia and referred to charity Samaritan’s Purse, which partners with Health City. Every year, the East End hospital treats around 100 children from countries as far afield as Uganda, Bolivia, Haiti and Mongolia.
“We have been doing these surgeries for around six years,” said Upadhya. “Dr. [Devi] Shetty’s vision is that cost should not come in the way of getting treatment.”
As she prepared to leave the island this week, Jagaawa said she had new hope for her son’s future.
“When he grows up, I wish for him to be a special person like Miss Lovenia and Dr. Sripadh – to show kindness to people, to take care of them and love them and make them better.”
COVID delays heart ops for more kids
The coronavirus crisis has impacted access to emergency heart operations at Health City Cayman Islands for a number of children around the world.
The hospital typically performs life-changing surgeries for around 40 children every year in partnership with the Children’s Heart Project.
This year, COVID-19 has meant only two children, including Aagi, were able to travel to Cayman for treatment, said Angela Martins, local coordinator for the charity, which is part of the Samaritan’s Purse humanitarian organisation.
Martins, who coordinates with 17 local churches to provide support to the children, their guardians and interpreters when they visit Cayman, said Health City had become one of the most important hospitals in the international effort – providing surgeries to more than 130 children since 2016.
The charity has outposts in Uganda, Bolivia and Mongolia and works with medics in remote areas to provide health checks and screen children for surgeries they would otherwise not be able to afford.
She said there were currently several children who had been processed and were waiting for operations but were unable to travel because of COVID-19-related restrictions.