Avera McKennan's mission is to provide the highest quality of health care, without limits, to those in need even if they are half a world away. Avera Dr. Leonard Gutnik spear headed a charitable effort to bring a Uganda woman to Sioux Falls to have a deadly optical tumor removed. We met up with a very grateful Teacher Grace (that's what she is called in her native country) before she went home to Africa with a new lease on life.
Grace says, "Very many things I've never seen in my life. Very many. Like snow. I've never seen snow and I've never been on a plane until this trip."
Grace Lusweswe is a teacher in a small village 20 miles from her home in Uganda. They have very little electricity or running water. They also don't have the medical care we have. For 2 years, Grace says her right eye was trying to come out of her head. She lost vision in that eye, suffered horrible headaches and would get confused easily.
Grace says, "I took medicine for it for two years. No one could tell me what was wrong or what was causing it. Not until it was too late did they tell me I have a tumor and nothing could be done. No doctors in Uganda could perform surgery on my brain so I lost hope.
Hope was restored when Teacher Grace met an American who was volunteering at her school (Arlington Academy of Hope) last spring who just happened to have a lot of connections at Avera McKennan: Internist Dr. Leonard Gutnik with Avera Gutnik and Associates.
Dr. Gutnik says, "My stepdaughter, Charlee Vorhees, was teaching in Uganda for 3 months last year when she met Grace. Charlee started fundraising to help with the tumor Grace had in her eye. Her eye was being pushed out of her head."
Grace says, "All the time I was thinking I'm going to die and leave my children."
She has 5 children ranging in age from 24 to 12.
Dr. Gutnik says, "She was in a lot of pain and no one in Uganda could help. That's when I started talking to the folks at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls to see if we could help Teacher Grace."
Graces journey here was a long one. The flight time alone from Uganda to Amsterdam to DC to Minneapolis to Sioux Falls was more than 23 hours. Grace says it was a trip of a life time, but also a lifesaver.
Grace says, "For the first time to get someone to welcome you like that it's so wonderful."
Avera Neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Puumala and a whole host of staff graciously agreed to help Grace.
Dr. Gutnik says, "Dr. Puumala was so kind, as was Fred Slunecka, (Regional President at Avera McKennan) and all the staff at the hospital to help bring Grace here. Two weeks ago (the middle of December) Dr. Puumala removed the tumor from her eye and brain. Her eye has settled back in to her head. She sees a little bit of light and dark and so this has been a very successful journey."
Grace's prognosis is good. The hope is her vision will be restored, but if doesn't come back completely at least it won't get any worse. Dr. Puumala believes the tumor will stop growing. Her pain and pressure is also gone.
Grace says, "Now when I move my hand below my face I can see a shadow moving. Before I couldn't see anything."
While Grace recovered from surgery she stayed with Dr. Gutnik and his wife Jo Lea who say the pleasure was all theirs.
Gutnik, "It's been a delightful holiday for our family." His wife Jo Lea says, "she is so interesting and a happy person and she really has blessed our lives."
Grace says, "Now it's done (surgery) I'm very happy."
And thanks to Dr. Gutnik and so many at Avera McKennan, Teacher Grace can now set her sight on the future and it looks a whole lot brighter now.
On her trip home, Grace flies out of D.C. where she plans to spend a few days with her friend Charlee and get a tour of our nation's capitol.