Project gives new life to Zambian patients

NEW START: Auckland Hospital nurse Richard Mwaijumba from Henderson with some of the patients who benefited from the  work of the Mutima Project earlier this year.
NEW START: Auckland Hospital nurse Richard Mwaijumba from Henderson with some of the patients who benefited from the work of the Mutima Project earlier this year.

Zambia is where Richard Mwaijumba grew up. It's where he studied to be a nurse, launched his career and started his own family.

Mr Mwaijumba now lives in Henderson but says he owes a lot to his home country. So when he heard about a group of New Zealanders heading to Zambia to perform life-saving heart operations he jumped at the chance to join them.

"Going back home and helping my own people was so fulfilling," he says.

"All my studies were paid for by the government so I thought maybe this is my time to pay that back the best way I can."

The Mutima Project was started in 2009 by Christchurch-based heart surgeon Dr Harsh Singh and surgical registrar at Christchurch Hospital Munanga Mwandila who also hails from Zambia.

Around 15.6 million people suffer from rheumatic heart disease worldwide according to the World Health Organisation and about 230,000 people die every year. It is the leading cause of cardiac disease and death in young adults in Zambia.

There are about 300 adult patients on the waiting list to be treated and an undisclosed number of children.

Mr Mwaijumba says limited public funding means only the rich are able to afford to travel to either South Africa or India for operations. For others, the wait for treatment through public hospitals is too long.

So Mr Mwaijumba got in touch with co-ordinators of the non-profit Mutima Project to join the 30 other medical personnel from across New Zealand who would essentially take an entire operating theatre to Zambia in March this year and perform seven operations in the space of two weeks.

The team consisted of cardiothoracic surgeons and registrars, cardiac anaesthetists, technicians and theatre, ICU and ward nurses.

"Working with this team was such an experience. It was the first time we'd all met and by the end of the trip we were like family," Mr Mwaijumba says.

"It was truly an honour to be a part of the team and be able to do something so rewarding."

Many of the seven women the team operated on needed valve replacements. One woman needed a double valve replacement.

Mr Mwaijumba's role meant he spent a lot of time with each patient making sure they were comfortable before and after the surgery.

Mr Mwaijumba says meeting the women hit close to home, reminding him of wife's sister who died from a heart condition because she could not get treatment.

"It was a heartbreaking time for us. It was such a devastating loss for us so to be able to do this for someone else was amazing and I'll definitely be doing it again."

Dr Mwandila remembers struggling to deal with watching the unnecessary suffering while at medical school in Zambia.

"I always knew even then, that we could do better. Young patients with heart conditions got to me the most. They suffer and die so young from something that can be treated if only the resources, both human and otherwise were readily available," he says.

The team needs help from the public and donations. Go to to find out how you can help.

Western Leader