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My heart belongs in Africa

As an African entrepreneur who was born and raised on the continent, I am acutely aware of Africa’s developmental needs and the impact that appropriate initiatives can have, especially for low-income countries and those affected by conflict. Africa’s development agenda to date has largely been imported rather than homegrown. The result is that many solutions, while somewhat effective, fall far short of maximizing the full potential of the continent’s resources and people.

To achieve the transformative growth that’s needed, we must shift from giving static answers to today’s challenges to seeking and generating proactive, dynamic solutions. This dynamism is something that sets apart leading companies and countries around the world. This is a culture that I seek to cultivate in my enterprises and in communities.

Reliable access to energy and its effective usage will determine how much we progress as a continent. When my business partner and I launched Yeelen, we did not just want to be a solar energy company or a company that simply imported foreign products, solutions, or brands. We founded the organization to provide a better, more sustainable way of producing and utilizing energy at a lower cost, all the while contributing to a cleaner planet.

My vision for Yeelen, as a smart energy services company, was that it would eventually support households, enterprises, organizations, and institutions to operate more effectively and efficiently, positioning them for growth, job creation, and expansion in the delivery of much-needed services.

While launching Yeelen was my first step in applying my technical training and professional expertise to my passion for creating sustainable solutions, I have faith that it won’t be my last. I have always been driven by the promise of technological innovation for economic growth and support development.

Now, based on my personal experiences through multiple health care systems, I recognize how important these are for health services as well. I also realize that despite almost dying, I was very fortunate to have been able to get the specialized care I needed at critical times. Most people in Senegal, Mali, and neighboring countries lack access to appropriate diagnostic and preventive care, cutting-edge research, and novel medical technologies.

As we think about how we can use this experience to effect positive change to the health systems here in the USA and back home, Desirée has helped me understand that what would make a difference in health care is about much more than the technology. The culture and team atmosphere around the patient also make an incredible difference. For instance, the doctors are part of that impact but so are the nurses, who serve as strong patient advocates and who are often the ones who know best what happens with each patient under their care on a day-to-day basis.

Seeing how much the doctors rely on nurses here at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston), we realized that simply having additional trained professionals and support staff who could assist doctors and patients alike, could make a huge difference. What I appreciated about my care in Boston and at Sutter Medical Center (Sacramento) had as much to do with the experience of the medical team as with the equipment, technologies, and availability of resources.

So, my personal and professional vision has expanded. Beyond what I envisioned with Yeelen (an effective platform for transformative impact), with my story, I am in the position to make an even larger impact on the health and wellbeing of communities here and back home.

As a first step, I am establishing the Heartofagiant Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission that is two-fold and which spans my family’s two homes – the USA and Africa.

First – Amplify patient voices to improve their heart health and vitality. Improved patient voices will lead to better health outcomes by improving the quality of medical decisions, and guidelines, through better patient education and greater patient involvement.

Second – Contribute to capacitating healthcare practitioners on the continent with the skills (including research capacity), tools (such as equipment, medication, facilities…) and support (promoting a culture of care, taking care of the care providers), to be able to offer effective treatments in Africa to people with conditions similar to mine.

This is not for the fainthearted

In a very short period, I went through:

  • My first congestive heart failure and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) diagnosis in South Africa (December 2012);
  • Being treated by cardiologists in Dakar, Senegal, and Bamako, Mali, when I moved back home (March 2014 – June 2016);
  • Finding out that my condition was actually caused by a congenital Left Ventricular Non-Compaction Cardiomyopathy (LVNC) and that I was having life-threatening irregular tachycardia or arrhythmia know as Ventricular Tachycardia (V-tach or VT)  in Davis/Sacramento, CA (June 2016);
  • Moving with my family to Boston, MA to continue my care and live closer to Desiree’s parents, living a mobile intravenous system for 6-month; until…
  • Undergoing open-heart surgery to insert the HearMate3 Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) in my heart in January 2017, … Then,
  • Recovering through lots of self-motivation, family support, outstanding medical care, cardiac rehab, some martial art (Vovinam Viet Vo Dao), exercising at home and going for frequent walks.
Moment of solitude wondering live or not to live: what next?
2012/13 New Year’s at the beach in Durban, South Africa

Admittedly, it is a very tough and challenging process. Amongst others, I am talking about dealing with: 

  • Trauma: This can be a very lonely experience. Only you truly know what it was like to go through that traumatic event, this very life-changing, horrific experience. There may be other people with you at the time, no one really knows what it was like to be you at that moment from your vantage point. Then, you have to navigate relationships, mood changes, and more frustrations.
  • Avoidance symptoms, sometimes, I just want to be alone, I can’t leave my room or my house. And avoidance can also have the effect of shrinking someone’s life, such that there are very few places I end up feeling comfortable going to.
  • Negative changes in moods and beliefs: I’d also get in these moods where I can’t tolerate anybody.
  • Avoidance of the reminders of the traumatic moments: I just get numb and I don’t want to talk about it. It’s hard to shake the feelings.
  • Hyperarousal: sometimes, I just have a very short fuse. I feel like I am ready to snap.
  • Also, I have been through many low points, including dealing with suicide ideation.

Thankfully with the help of some psychotherapy, and other activities, I have been finding ways to feel connected to others, to express emotions, to share part of what my experiences have been, either about the times I felt sick or my struggles with my conditions. All of these have certainly been helping with my long-term recovery and my ability to be part of my communities in a positive way.

It has been a journey! But, thankfully, my quality of life transformed, to the point that I am now back to working full-time, developing new social projects, being physically active in sports, and more important present to enjoy incredible moments with my wife, our three sons and the family and our communities.

On a professional level, I have since started to rebuild my career (I worked part-time at the Apple Store South Shore, from September 2017 to June 2019; before, I decided to go back to working full-time in energy that July). I practice martial arts (twice a week in addition to cardio exercises). I am more active and involved with my sons, and my wife and I are happier together.  

I’m happy to say that just a few years after learning that my heart is too big for my body, I’m thoroughly enjoying life again—every second of it. I feel ready and evermore confident to persevere. I have hope for the future, no fear. I have faith in my future, no worries. I dream again. I live again, to the fullest. I’m staying positive, looking out for the good hearts in everyone I meet and every action I undertake.

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