40 years of sharing the ‘Gift of Life’

40 years of sharing the ‘Gift of Life’

For over 40 years, Robert Donno has been giving to communities around the world through his involvement with the Rotary Club’s Gift of Life program.

The program provides life-saving heart surgery to children in underdeveloped countries without access to modern healthcare, and it all started in Manhasset.

Donno began his work with the Manhasset Rotary Club in 1971, at the age of 25. 

He said by joining he was taking the spot of his father, who was involved in Rotary before he died at the age of 54.

“I found that they were doing some great things, but they could be a lot more dynamic,” he said.

Donno read an article about an African girl named Margaret Rose whose face became disfigured after a hyena attack. With the help of a plastic surgeon he knew through the Rotary Club, Donno arranged to fly her to Long Island for treatment at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn.

The operation was a success, and the team of people helping Margaret inspired her to take a similar path, he said.

“She wanted to become a nurse so she could give back and do something for society because of the gifts that had been given to her,” Donno said.

After that case, Manhasset’s Rotary Club had the beginnings of a program that could reach more children.

Since St. Francis had a heart center, Donno said, he was asked if he would accept a young girl from Uganda with a congenital heart defect.

The hospital accepted the case, and in 1975 Donno had the young girl and her father travel to the United States so she could receive treatment. 

Her name is Grace Agwaru, and at 5 years old, she received her gift of life.

Donno remembers how skeptical Grace’s father, Sylvester, was when he met him at the hospital. 

Donno was then a young man in his 20s who said he looked like he should’ve been a member of Crosby, Stills & Nash rather than arranging life-saving heart surgery for his daughter.

But he said Sylvester was a courageous man, who made a decision to travel there even against the advice of some tribe members in Uganda, because he wanted to do whatever he could to save his daughter.

The surgery was a success, and after Grace recovered Donno recalls her skipping through the airport.

“She was adorable,” he said. “I was heartbroken because I thought that I would never see her again.”

As he was leaving, Sylvester couldn’t stop saying thank you and collapsed in Donno’s arms out of relief for his daughter, he said.

“I can remember looking at the taxi cabs standing there,” Donno said. “I thought about the interaction I just had with this man, and I thought if I got hit by a car right now, I would have lived a satisfying life.”

Fortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time Donno saw Grace.

Donno said if you save one life, you can save many, and Agwaru’s gift of life is an example of that. 

After having her life saved as a child, she grew up to head the Uganda chapter of Gift of Life. The second recipient, Robinah Nakabuye, also works for the organization.

“All of the kids that go through the program today go through the first two children who ever received treatment from the program,” Donno said.

Because of her involvement with the organization, Donno has been able to interact with her numerous times, including a recent reunion at the Manhasset Rotary’s installation dinner.

As the years moved on and Gift of Life grew, changes in healthcare made the program shift its approach in helping others.

“In 2003, you could see the change in the dynamics of the healthcare industry,” Donno said. “In this country it was already becoming way too expensive for the hospital to basically do pro bono work.”

Gift of Life shifted its focus to sustainability, and developing healthcare centers in the countries with needs so they would have more permanent access to treatment, as well as the ability to reach more children.

This year the Uganda program is expected to help 150 to 200 children, Donno said.

Before the operation shifted from flying children out for treatment, the Gift of Life typically only reached five per year in Uganda, he said.

“It doesn’t do anything to solve the problems in those countries, so we changed the emphasis from bringing kids over here to developing programs over there,” Donno said.

Today Gift of Life operates through Rotary Clubs in over 70 countries, and has major development projects in Uganda, El Salvador, Jamaica and Romania. 

The organization is aiming to start up modern medical facilities in the countries so they have lasting access to treatment.

Since its creation, the Gift of Life has given life-saving operations to over 18,000 children worldwide.

Donno recalls interactions with his granddaughter as a motivation to continue working with Gift of Life after 40 years. 

When he’s had the chance to spend time with her, he said he’s thought about the families that worry they won’t have much time left with their own children. He thinks about what it would be like to need his own child’s life saved, he said.

“It’s easy for us to be in their shoes because we know how it would feel if it were our son our daughter,” Donno said. “We’re not saving someone else’s child, were saving our own.”

by Chris Adams

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