When Kayla Billington, RN, began volunteering in a pediatric hospital in Jinja, Uganda at the age of 25, falling in love with a 2-year-old patient with a heart defect was not on her agenda when she arrived.
Three years later, after he died in her arms at the end of an exhausting, frustrating, and time-consuming journey to a hospital in Kentucky that had agreed to try and save him, she vowed to continue to help others like him. Had his structural heart defect, called tetralogy of Fallot, been discovered and treated earlier, it would have been fairly easy to correct.
“As Patrick was dying, I told him there would be some purpose from this,” said Billington, now 32 and a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. “It was not for nothing.”
Transforming grief to a cause for good
In 2019 Billington founded a nonprofit called Paty’s Project, named after the little boy she loved, which offers free heart surgeries to Ugandan children to correct potentially fatal defects.
In Ugandan hospitals, where there might be 300 patients for each doctor, heart defect diagnoses are often overlooked due to a lack of equipment and expertise in local hospitals, explained Billington. Surgical treatment to correct them does not exist. The result is that many children with correctible defects die. Not only is health care lacking, but education is generally poor, with parents sometimes believing that a child with a heart defect must be the victim of witchcraft, Billington said.
After Patrick died, she learned his sister suffered from the same defect. Billington was able to get her to the same hospital in Kentucky for a free surgery that saved her life.
“When I went back to Uganda after that, I met another little boy who had a heart defect,” said Billington. “That’s when it clicked for me that there is a need, and these kids could easily survive if they were born in another country, and that’s when I decided to start the nonprofit.”
Helping more children
Since starting Paty’s Project, Billington has arranged and raised funds to pay for life-saving heart defect surgeries for 4 children. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed her work, but it is now picking back up. She is currently working to help her next 2 patients.
“I have a doctor friend in the town of Jinja, Dr. Isabirye Henry, who connects me to all my patients, and he does all the pre-operation paperwork, the airline tickets, the visas, and passports,” said Billington. “We take them to a hospital in Kochi, India, that does the surgeries at cost, which is between $4,000 and $10,000 each.”
She flies to Uganda, then with the child and the mother or caregiver to India for the surgery. After they have recovered, she flies back to Uganda with them, then back to the United States.
Billington said her position at Kaiser Permanente allows her to take time off to help the young heart patients.
“I just want to help as many kids as humanly possible, because every kid we helped have surgery hasn’t been back in a hospital, and they are living full lives,” said Billington. “I just think every kid deserves that.”