HEART OF A GIANT:
THE JOURNEY SO FAR
My life experiences have led me to pursue a professional engineering career, emphasizing electrical engineering, and telecommunications. I have been a part of several projects surrounding my technical background and social entrepreneurship — incorporating a focus surrounding energy, telecoms, health, and the ability to improve peoples’ lives through technological innovation. Moreover, whenever possible, I have been involved in my community through several initiatives that focus on peace-building, health, and development.
Thus, unsurprisingly, earlier in my life, if I had imagined writing a memoir, I thought it would have been about the work that I do as a strategist, engineer, and entrepreneur. You see, as a social entrepreneur from Mali and Senegal, my first vision has been to find ways to optimize the usage, accessibility, and production of energy in Africa.
And yes, I do realize this is no small task. However, I am an electrical and telecoms engineer by training, holding a Masters of Management in Technological Innovation. Furthermore, I have more than ten years of progressive experience in strategic planning, program management, and business development in energy and telecommunications…So, it is a task I am well-prepared to tackle.
First, Let’s Go Back In Time…
I had an idyllic upbringing. I was a sports-loving boy who spent time with his siblings and hung out with friends and neighborhood kids. I never thought that my health would ever take the turn the way it did. Feeling invincible, I was extremely active and remained that way ever since. While there were some bouts of dizziness, light-headedness, and galloping heart rhythm, it never occurred to me that something wasn’t right at the time — my cape was flowing in the wind, without faltering.
Life was going well, but day after day, a nagging uneasiness in the back of my mind seemed to haunt me. A concern that would rear its head in late 2012, where my cape became tattered and worn.
I was 26, living in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had just met the love of my life, and work was going exceptionally well. I felt like I was on top of the world. However, late that year, I had a cough that persisted, my energy levels were lessening, and I felt a tightness in my chest and shallowness to my breath. These were the warning signs that I had known since I was a child — that tormenting thought that made me remember that I was indeed human. A month passed by, and the symptoms progressively became worse and, eventually, downright unbearable. I then went to the Emergency Room at the Morningside Mediclinic to learn more about what I was experiencing.
The diagnosis in itself brought me back to reality — life is too short. There are warning signs that seem like nothing, but eventually, they become more apparent as time goes on. I realized that I needed to make some changes and to make sure that my cape kept flying strongly against the headwinds of what came next. I then embarked on a journey of recovery and never looked back.
In the early stages, I responded well to the treatments. My health gradually came back, and I felt better than I did when my doctors diagnosed me. And, as life continued, so did the many blessings that came my way. By the end of 2014, I had been married, our family welcomed our first child, and we had moved to Dakar, Senegal. But within those blessings, there are just some reminders that are unfortunately hard to live with.
In 2015, I co-founded an energy services company (ESCo) in Senegal named Yeelen, intending to provide more sustainable, lower-cost ways of using and delivering the 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.
My wife, Desirée, accompanied me and our newborn son, Buraq Abdou. Soon after, I lived the typical dynamic entrepreneur’s life, 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 flew from Dakar to Davis, California, as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). I was gratefully selected to be among the Mandela Washington Fellowship recipients, launched by the then President Barack H. Obama, to encourage young people involved in Africa’s development.
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. This startup subsidiary was established by General Electric (GE), in Boston, for professional development.
That trip was disrupted when a few days into it, my symptoms had come back in full force — retaining fluids and vomiting to add to an already problematic situation. 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.
The program staff took me to Urgent Care in Davis, and the Emergency services immediately moved me to Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento for further testing. After a few days of tests, a cardiac MRI, and observation, we learned that I had a rare form of a congenital heart defect known as Left Ventricular Non-Compaction Cardiomyopathy or LVNC.
The walls of the left ventricle of my heart are soft and spongy, rather than smooth and compacted as they should be. In addition to this, we also discovered that I was at the risk of sudden cardiac arrest due to irregular heart rhythms — ventricular tachycardia or v-tach, which is a type of abnormal heart rhythm called arrhythmia. It occurs when the lower chamber of the heart beats too fast to pump appropriately, and as a result, the body doesn’t receive enough oxygenated blood.
As a precautionary measure, the medical team implanted an Automated Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator, AICD, inside my chest before I left the hospital. This device can 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. Also, the doctors had prescribed me some oral medicine to treat arrhythmia and my cardiomyopathy. However, after four weeks, I was still sick, and my condition was worsening. To my dismay, my heart’s ability to function had already changed drastically, and my cardiac muscles deteriorated. The debilitating effect of my heart condition started to show.
My cape, now unable to catch even the faintest breeze, was a signal for the worst news. I was reaching the point of end-stage heart failure. A fruitful life was coming to a screeching halt. I didn’t know if there were any other options, and I braced for what was to come. In my case, the condition was now severe; a heart transplant is considered my best option.
I needed a heart transplant — the sooner, the better. To maintain my cardiac function in the short-term, I needed a constant Milrinone intravenous infusion.
A Change is Gonna Come…
To my surprise, I responded well to this medication. My symptoms almost resolved immediately – the coughing disappeared, and my body’s excess liquid was retaining dissipated. I started feeling better, and I was able to be a bit more active. Once the Milrinone solution helped stabilize my condition, my family and I moved to Boston in late 2016 to continue my care and recovery. We moved closer to an innovative and comprehensive health care system— Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), while simultaneously living close to Desirée’s family. After some evaluation, the cardiology team found me to be a right candidate for a heart transplant, and I was officially placed on the waiting list that same year.
We’ve decided that while I waited for a donor organ, a Left Ventricular Assist Device (or LVAD) implanted into my chest would support my heart. This pump system provides a bypass path between the heart and the Aorta (aka the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to supply blood to the rest of the body), thus alleviating some of the heart’s workload pressure.
I underwent my open-heart surgery for the LVAD in the second week of January 2017. The procedure was a success, and the whole experience, transformative. Three weeks after, I walked out of the hospital by myself, well on my way to a sound recovery. I have been gaining back strength since, and I am becoming more active again.
Three months after the operation, I signed up for a cardiac rehabilitation program at the Boston Medical Center (BMC) to further strengthen and improve my functional capacity. This program helped increase my oxygen intake, endurance, and quality of life factors. In just a few months, I had greatly improved my health and was on the smooth road to recovery.
My quality of life has tremendously improved quickly, and I have felt stronger and stronger ever since. I was slowly getting back to feeling invincible — my cape now repaired and mostly able to flap against the strongest winds. I could walk longer distances, climb flights of stairs, work, and safely stay active with my son.
I returned to work in late 2017 and had big news for the family. We were once again pregnant with our twins — whom we welcomed to this world in July of 2018.
And now, What’s Next?
Living in Boston was not part of our plans. The community has been so great to me, and I love every passing moment. While life continues, we know that each day brings me closer to a heart transplant.
As I looked back, my focused narrowed in, and I figured a few things that I need to do for the sake of my health and the prosperity of my family:
- Maintain my health to the fullest
- Become as healthy as I can — physically, mentally, and emotionally
- Be much more active and support my family in the home environment and my professional spaces.
- Be available and accessible, at all times, for when the medical team finds a for when a good donor heart for me.
During my spare time, I recharge by spending time with my family, staying active through various sports, reading, and writing whenever possible.
Gratitude is the Word
It’s been quite a journey for my family and me — with each passing day filled with the ups and downs of life. As we take these small, careful steps forward, I look back to see where I have flown, where I have landed, and when I was unable to soar. But through perseverance, hope, and faith, I’m still standing.
Thank you for walking with me on this journey. Stay tuned for what comes next!
Last edited – April 2020