We think Rita may be the luckiest woman in Timor-Leste.
In a country in which the World Health Organisation puts female life expectancy at 69 years, Rita Dos Santos Araujo, a primary school teacher, has lived to the venerable age of 47.
She has raised seven healthy children (all of whom are now studying at school and university) and educated scores more in her tiny schoolhouse in the mountainous village of Ainaro, in Timor-Leste’s south-west.
What makes Rita’s achievements truly remarkable is that for many years she has had untreated, critical heart disease. The sort of heart disease that frequently claims the lives of pregnant women and often their unborn babies as well.
She struggles up the steep track to school every day, because she is committed her students and her family.
“My life is not happy because the disease causes me to be breathless and dizzy, and it’s hard to climb up to the hill,” Rita said.
“I feel like the disease hampers my work but even if I feel it's hard I have to be patient to do it. Because if I don't do that, who is supporting my family?”
Rita’s condition is eminently treatable, but not in Timor-Leste, where there are no specialist cardiac facilities. And definitely not in the remote village in which she lives.
Rita is lucky to have produced seven healthy children. Lucky to have lived to an old age by local standards. And even luckier to have been assessed and identified for treatment in Australia by East Timor Hearts Fund’s volunteer medical team.
Although established to assist young people with heart disease, East Timor Hearts Fund does not turn away anyone it can help. Rita, the oldest patient the fund has assisted, will arrive in Australia on Saturday 13 June, along with another patient, father of three Martinho Alves, who also has critical mitral stenosis.
Next week eminent cardiologist Professor Richard Harper of MonashHeart in Melbourne will perform mitral balloon procedures on Rita and Martinho to repair their damaged heart valves.
It’s a technically complex but non-invasive procedure which does not even require a general anaesthetic. The results are typically miraculous, with patients up and walking within hours, enjoying breathing easily and pain free, often for the first time in years.
Rita can scarcely wait to be liberated from her heart condition. “When I feel better, I'll continue to do my work so that I can support my family,” she said.
“For those doctors, donors and people who have helped to get me to Australia to have my operation, I'll not forget to say thank you very much for their kindly support.”
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