By SHARON CHIN
SAN MATEO, California (KPIX) — A San Mateo County woman has made it her personal mission to help provide life-saving heart surgeries for children in Uganda.
Kayla Billington knew she wanted to became a pediatric nurse after surviving a rare form of cancer as a teenager.
“I felt in any way, if I could go on and help kids that that’s what I wanted to do,” Billington said.
She cares for some of the most critically ill children in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland.
But a heartbreaking truth expanded her mission.
“I treat children all the time. Even if their parents can’t afford their care, they’re never denied. That’s not the case in Uganda,” she said.
Billington was volunteering at a children’s hospital in Uganda in 2016 when she met Patrick, a two-and- a-half-year-old boy she called Paty.
Tests confirmed he had Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition with four heart defects, but doctors gave no hope for corrective surgery.
“They just looked at me and said solemnly, ‘We don’t do these kinds of heart repairs here in Uganda,'” Billington said. “I was devastated. I had already fallen in love with him and to think that there was no hope, no options for him, we just had to sit and wait for him to die. It was unbearable. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.”
She was determined that she would arrange the surgery Paty needed.
After working out a plan for nearly two years, Billington finally brought him to a Kentucky hospital for surgery, free of charge.
But by then his heart was too weak for the operation. He died in her arms at her home.
“While I was holding him, I told him his death was not for nothing, and that I was going to take care of his family. And I’d make sure people would remember his name and his story,” the Oakland nurse said.
Billington started the nonprofit, Paty’s Project, in 2019. Since then, it has provided four heart surgeries for Ugandan children.
One of those operations was for Paty’s sister, who also had a heart defect.
Doctors performed three other surgeries in India through a partnership with the nonprofit, Healing the Children, in Wisconsin.
Billington raises between $4,000 and $10,000 in travel-related costs per patient, funded by generous donors like colleague Helen Kim.
“She’s a beautiful person that would move the world to help anyone else, especially kids,” said Kim, who’s also a nurse at Kaiser Oakland’s NICU.
And when Billington hears how the surgeries are changing lives allowing children to go to school and play, her heart is full.
“It’s knowing these kids now have a chance at life, and a chance to be kids,” she said.
Billington also kept her promise to provide for Paty’s family. She raised money and bought a plot of land in Uganda that his mother farms to support his four siblings.
Billington has two heart surgeries scheduled in India in spring 2023. About 20 children are on the waiting list to receive heart surgeries.
So for providing heart surgeries and hope to children in Uganda, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Kayla Billington.
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