FEEL GOOD | 13-year-old Cape Town transplant patient thanks doctors from the bottom of her new heart

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Parusia Muhigirwa, 13, is recovering well after heart transplant surgery carried out at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
Parusia Muhigirwa, 13, is recovering well after heart transplant surgery carried out at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
  • The Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital has carried out its first heart transplant surgery in 13 years.
  • Teenager Parusia Muhigirwa received a new heart in February.
  • The 13-year-old is recovering well after the surgery, the hospital has said.

A 13-year-old girl has undergone a successful heart transplant at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town - a journey that has inspired her to becoming a doctor one day.

The life-changing surgery is the first one to be carried out at the hospital in 13 years, with Parusia Muhigirwa receiving a new heart in February. Muhigirwa was diagnosed with a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle becomes weak, floppy and enlarged or dilated.

While dilated cardiomyopathy is most commonly caused by a viral infection attacking the heart muscle, the cause is not always known, explained Professor Liesl Zühlke, a paediatric cardiologist at the hospital.

Children can develop cardiomyopathy - failure of the heart's muscle - for various reasons, said Zühlke.

READ | SA’s first Covid-19 lung transplant patient finally leaves hospital, with her baby

"Some children may be born with abnormal heart structures, congenital heart disease, and although we are able to operate on many of these lesions, some are no longer able to be repaired or develop complications and when there is additional muscle pump failure, sometimes the only option is also to offer a heart transplant," she said.

Patients like Muhigirwa have a long road to travel before getting a transplant.

"We spend a long time preparing children with these conditions for a heart transplant and it is a careful and considered joint decision between family, child and team," said Zühlke.

Professor Mignon McCulloch, who heads up the paediatric Transplantation Service at the hospital, said that transplant patients still faced challenges after the surgery.

"Immunosuppression is a challenge, especially with children and in the time of Covid-19. It's a fine line that we need to balance to ensure that we give the patient the best chances," McCulloch said.

The follow-up process entails regular, monthly, check-ups including echo-cardiograms, blood tests, an array of assessments and careful monitoring of the immunosuppression.

According to a hospital statement, Muhigirwa has been in recovery and is doing well, and the experience had motivated her to become a doctor when she grows up.

"Today I have a new heart and I'm strong again... I'm very happy," she said.

"Thank you, doctors. You have been such a big help in my life since I came [to Red Cross] four years ago, waiting for a heart. You've always been there for me, supporting me. I have nothing to give you - no gold, no money - but a big 'thank you'."

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