Heart of a Giant

Introduction to the Heart of a Giant story

Earlier in my life, if I had imagined writing a memoir, I thought it would be about the work that I do as an engineer and entrepreneur. You see, as a social entrepreneur from Mali and Senegal, my vision has been to find ways to optimize the usage, accessibility, and production of energy in Africa.

This is no small task, but as an electrical engineer by training, holding a Masters of Management degree in Technological Innovation, with over ten years of progressive experience in strategic planning, program management, and business development in the fields of energy and telecommunications, working with utilities, businesses, organizations, cities, and governments to improve people’s lives through technology and innovation, it is a task I am well-prepared to tackle.

In 2015, I co-founded an energy services company (ESCo) in Senegal we named Yeelen, with the goal of providing more sustainable, lower-cost ways of using and providing energy while contributing to a cleaner planet. To launch Yeelen, I had relocated at the end of 2014 from Johannesburg, South Africa to Dakar, Senegal.

Electrification of Senegal
Photo: Santa Fe Institute image courtesy of Markus Schl?pfer

I was accompanied by my wife, Desirée, who at the time was a senior manager at the strategic advisory firm Dalberg, and our newborn son, Buraq Abdou. Soon after, I was living the life of the typical impassioned entrepreneur, running the company out of our home while my son learned to walk. Life was good, and I could almost taste how satisfying it would feel to play a role in achieving my startup’s vision and making a difference in my community.

Then, less than a year after launching the organization and two years after my son was born, something happened—something that would change the course of my life forever.

In June 2016, I had flown from Dakar to Davis, California as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). I was gratefully selected to be among the recipients of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, launched by President Barack H. Obama to encourage young people involved in development in Africa.

​The plan was to complete a six-week trip at the UC Davis’ Energy Institute, followed by an additional six weeks with Current, Powered by GE, a startup subsidiary which was established by General Electric (GE), in Boston, for professional development.

That trip was disrupted when I became very ill and ended up with a surprising diagnosis. I was having congestive heart failure (CHF). It turned out that I had a rare form of a heart defect I’d unknowingly had since birth: left ventricular non-compaction cardiomyopathy, or LVNC.

​This heart muscle disorder occurs when the lower left chamber of the heart—the left ventricle—which helps the heart pump blood, does not develop correctly. Instead of the muscle being smooth and firm, the cardiac muscle in the left ventricle is thick and appears spongy.

Left ventricular non-compaction
An introduction to LVNC (Cardiomypathy.org)

My medical team revealed moreover that I had been at risk of sudden cardiac death all along – V-tach or ventricular tachycardia (a type of abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. It occurs when the lower chamber of the heart beats too fast to pump well and the body doesn’t receive enough oxygenated blood).

​Immediately after this diagnosis, I was fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) – a device implantable inside the body, able to perform cardioversion, defibrillation, and pacing of the heart. Incidentally, less than a week after the implant, the device prevented a life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia that would have been fatal to me.

In addition, I had been prescribed some oral medicine to treat the arrhythmia and my cardiomyopathy. However, after four weeks, I was still sick and my condition was worsening. In short, I had already reached end-stage congestive heart failure – I needed a heart transplant—the sooner, the better.

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