CAYMAN ISLANDS (December 24, 2020) – When five-year-old Aagii left rural Mongolia for lifesaving heart surgery in the Cayman Islands in January 2020, neither he nor his mother Amaraa could have imagined that they wouldn’t see their homeland again for nine months. He was initially anticipated to stay in Cayman for just six weeks.
Born with ventricular septal defect Aagi, whose full name is Altangerel Chogdon , came to the Cayman Islands with a group of children from his homeland, courtesy of the international charity Samaritan’s Purse – which has a longstanding relationship with Health City Cayman Islands to perform heart surgeries on children from impoverished countries around the world. He was accompanied by his mother, whose full name is Amarjargal Chuluunbaatar, and by interpreter Baigalmaa Khalzan, known as Baagii.
While the other children in his group went home in March prior to the Cayman Islands’ Covid-19 related lockdown, Aagi remained.
Once he arrived in Cayman, doctors discovered a dental condition that made surgery risky but which could be treated locally. However, before Aagi could get dental treatment in March, the Covid-19 suppression measures came into effect – putting the Islands into lockdown and temporarily closing medical facilities and dental offices for elective procedures.
No one at that time knew just how long the lockdown period would last. And when restrictions were lifted, it took several weeks to find a dentist who could treat Aagii.
Consequently, Aagii didn’t have his 2.5 hour surgery to repair what is commonly referred to as “a hole in the heart” until early September – nine months after he first arrived and after unexpectedly experiencing an earthquake, a pandemic, and a hurricane.
Most people would have been anxious and fearful during those uncertain months far from home.
Initially, Aagii’s mother Amaraa said, ““I had a strong feeling of fear. I didn’t know if we would ever get back to Mongolia and see my family again.”
It was a confusing time, but their translator Baagii interpreted the televised press conferences and explained the situation day by day.
“It was very stressful,” said Amaraa. “It was not clear whether it was going to happen for my baby.”
But soon, she felt at peace due to the support she received in Cayman.
“It was in the beginning kind of scary, but then since we knew that we are in good hands… and we didn’t worry about anything. We were provided by everything we needed so we didn’t feel any bad.”
She singled out the doctors who were caring for her son, “All the doctors were so kind and so attentive, so this made me be peaceful, and you know, be thankful to them.”
But primarily, throughout the long lockdown period, Amaraa said they depended on their host family for encouragement and support.
During their eventful nine months on island, Aagi, Amaraa and Baagii were sustained and cared for by Caymanians Mario and Lovenia Ebanks, who became a host family through their church. Samaritan’s Purse is a faith-based charity with links to several churches in the Cayman Islands.
Host families sometimes have visiting patients stay with them, but in this case, because of the length of the stay, Aagi and his family lived at a mission house in Savannah. The couple brought them food and took them to the shops on their ‘letter days’ during the shelter-in-place restrictions.
Lovenia Ebanks explained that they’ve previously hosted children from overseas and enjoyed the experience, but this group from Mongolia had become like family to her and her husband.
She said, “Normally we only have them for like two maybe three months. This nine months has been a little bit long, but you know you’re truly blessed to give back to a community that you live in. But you also must live your life with a sense of purpose. You have to wake up in the morning, find something positive to do with your life, and I do other things besides this, but this has been a very rewarding experience for me personally.”
Finally, once the required dental treatment was complete, paediatric cardiologist Dr. Sripadh Upadhya went ahead with the surgery.
“Aagi is a wonderful 5-year-old boy,” said Dr. Upadhya. “He is all fixed up and ready to go home. He is quite energetic and enthusiastic and he has recovered extremely well.”
Before the operation, Amaraa explained that Aagii would become out-of-breath quickly, with his features turning blue if he tried to run. He also had frightening seizures due to his condition.
Dr. Upadhya explained that if left untreated, Aagii’s condition would have resulted in decreased quality of life and could eventually prove fatal later in life, but the surgery would allow Aagii to live a regular life and grow healthily into adulthood.
On October 12, Aagii, his mother and their companion Baagii left Cayman to begin the long journey home to Mongolia, where his family herds goats, sheep and cattle on the Mongolian steppe and live a nomadic life in traditional tents called yurts.
“We have everything except camels and we travel with the animals from place to place,” Amaraa said.
She explained that Cayman had become like a second home, and that while they are looking forward to seeing their family again, they are sorry to leave people they have grown so close to.
“Now we’ve been here for a long time, we’ve adjusted to everything here and we met so many good friends and people. So in one way, even though we are happy to leave we will be missing all those friends…we will miss [them] but we all will have good memories,” Amaraa said.
Aagii also had some words of farewell, shyly told through his translator before he left: “He says he loves all of those people all of them. Thank you very much.”
Aagi was one of the over 100 children that Health City treats for congenital heart defects every year, often from far flung countries including Uganda, Bolivia, Haiti, and his homeland of Mongolia.
“We have been doing these surgeries for around six years,” said Dr. Upadhya. “Dr. [Devi] Shetty’s vision is that cost should not come in the way of getting treatment.”
As she and her son prepared to leave, Amaraa said, “I want to encourage those who want to come to the Cayman Islands…don’t be afraid to come here, because there are many good people, godly people here in [the] Cayman Islands. So that’s why we are so thankful. We can’t even express the words we have to thank them.”