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Jamaican teen receives heart-warming help

Rheumatic fever damaged Kajay Mclean’s heart. Repair was not possible in Jamaica.


Rheumatic fever damaged Kajay Mclean’s heart. Repair was not possible in Jamaica.


The boy remembers feeling calm as his mother left the operating room at St. Joseph's Hospital and an anesthesiologist pulled a mask over his nose. He breathed in.

Fifteen-year-old Kajay Mclean had come to Tampa from his home in Kingston, Jamaica, for cardiac surgery two weeks ago to repair a hole in his heart and a faulty valve.

"I was not scared," said Kajay, who is staying at the Ronald McDonald House on Davis Islands. "Not like I was in Jamaica."

Since he came down with rheumatic fever at 7, Kajay's health had declined, said Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs, who performed the surgery. "He was not going to live long," he said.

Kajay worried and his mother worried even more. Sometimes she spent the money for her two younger children's schooling on doctors for Kajay.

But there was little they could do. Doctors in Jamaica don't have the resources to perform cardiac surgery on all the children who need it, Jacobs said.

Kajay's lifeline, it turned out, led to the United States and a program sponsored by the Rotary Club.

Since 1995, Rotary clubs from the Tampa area have arranged heart surgeries for about 150 children from poor countries through A Gift of Life.

All have lived, said Heidi Hess, program chairwoman.

Thousands of children like Kajay who get rheumatic fever basically drown after their lungs become congested, she said.

Doctors and support staffers at St. Joseph's Hospital donated their services. The Rotary donated $5,000 to the hospital toward costs and took care of the family's needs while here.

Beyond the obvious rewards, Rotary members learn about the cultures of children from countries such as Iraq, Palestine and Cuba.

They arranged trips for Kajay and his mother to see the Bucs stadium and Big Cat Rescue after his surgery. His ticket home is Tuesday, and he longs to see his younger brother and sister, Shamar, 13, and Mishka, 10. They hope he brings gifts.

Kajay's home is very different, he said. He lives in a ghetto near a gully. When it rains, houses built too close wash away. His mother cleans a doctor's office. They have little money for extras.

Back home in Kingston, before he got sick, he played a game called Dandy Shandy. He and friends would stuff a box with paper to use as a ball in a sort of dodge game.

But he hadn't been able to play at all for a long time. His breathing was shallow.

It was all he could do to get out of bed and get to school most days.

What was happening inside was a vicious circle. His heart grew larger to pump blood to his body, but the valve leaked blood into his lungs.

In Tampa, he was excited to see a world he had viewed only through TV, where things seemed bigger than life, richer, luxurious.

He walked through a grocery store Tuesday wide-eyed.

He now has a mechanical heart valve and will take medication for the rest of his life. He'll be able to play cricket and basketball and to run soon enough, said Dr. Jacobs.

Jacobs wants to help other children in Jamaica and to teach doctors there. He is planning his third trip there in April. He is part of a cardiac team of 16 that performs open-heart surgeries on babies while training local doctors.

"It's very rewarding," Jacobs said. "It reminds us why we got into this field."

Often children like Kajay who live with debilitating illness focus their energies on schoolwork, Hess said.

Kajay consistently scores high on tests. He plans to become an accountant one day.

"That's part of why we feel like we're making such a big impact with the program," Hess said of A Gift of Life.

"I know he's going to go places."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3321.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from a previous version, which misstated a comment made by Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs.

Jamaican teen receives heart-warming help 11/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 11:45am]
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