When Zanda Bonamy looks at her 14-year-old daughter, Zuri, the only thing she wants for her daughter is for her to think outside the box and be the best person she could be, and not what people expect her to be.
“I want my daughter to live life to the fullest, to never fear anything, and to walk into the purpose that God has her here for,” said Bonamy, 37.
That wasn’t always the case. There was a period in Zuri’s life when her mom’s focus was on her daughter’s survival.
Zanda gave birth to Zuri, naturally, at 39 weeks, but was shocked when the pediatrician checked and found her newborn had a heart murmur; she referred her to a pediatric cardiologist on call at the time, who diagnosed the infant with tetralogy of fallot (TOF), a congenital heart disease that would require open heart surgery (OHS) for Zuri to survive. Congenital heart diseases are not hereditary, and can happen to anyone.
“At the time, I had returned home a few months earlier, and I had no medical insurance. I did not have the funds to pay for her surgeries. I was terrified that I would lose my child,” she recalled.
The pediatrician spoke to the new mom about the Bahamas Heart Association, an organization that assists families who have no insurance and are in desperate need of surgery. They were also referred to pediatric cardiologist Dr. Jerome Lightbourne, who, upon his examination, further diagnosed Zuri with double outlet right ventricle – a type of TOF with pulmonary stenosis and ventricular septal defect – and gave Bonamy the horrible news that her newborn, at five weeks old, needed surgery because she was going into heart failure.
The doctor did not just give the new mom the bad news and leave her floundering to make a way. She said Lightbourne and Bahamas Heart Association’s (BHA) treasurer Linda LaFleur stepped in to make all the arrangements. They arranged the surgery, spoke with the team at Holtz Children’s Hospital, at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, and arranged the funding.
“I vaguely remember us finding out on a Thursday that she needed surgery immediately and being at Holtz Children’s Hospital, Jackson Memorial Hospital by that Saturday. We stayed at Ronald McDonald House free of charge. She had surgery that Monday in early December 2006 and it lasted about 11 hours, inclusive of prep time, and surgery. She spent time in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) because she developed pneumonia post-surgery.”
Even though she had the surgery needed to save her life, Zuri’s life still hung in the balance, and her mom remembers her child having to be resuscitated while she visited with her in the PICU, and being ushered out as the medical staff dealt with her daughter’s health trauma.
“Somehow, the little firecracker just fought through,” said Bonamy. “She got better over a three-week period and we were home before Christmas.”
It was also a lifesaving surgery that cost thousands of dollars, but Bonamy has no idea exactly how much, as she never saw a bill.
At home, Zuri continues to be monitored by Dr. Lightbourne and his team at Pediatrix Specialists. He had informed Bonamy from her daughter’s initial surgery, that she would require valve replacement surgery as a teenager.
The teen had her follow-up surgery at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bonamy said she was hoping her daughter would have a keyhole procedure, but her MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) revealed Zuri would require OHS to properly repair her heart for the valve replacement.
After the surgery, Zuri spent about two days in the PICU and approximately three days in pediatric intermediate care. They remained in Ft. Lauderdale for three weeks before they returned home and Dr. Lightbourne and his team continued with Zuri’s care.
Zuri’s second surgery Bonamy said averaged $76,000. Again, the BHA came to Bonamy’s aid, as Zuri does not have medical insurance that covers her pre-existing conditions.
“We are grateful that the Bahamas Heart Association was able to come to our aid again. Mrs. Lafleur has truly been a beacon of light to us parents in our darkest hours.”
Today, Bonamy said her only child is in good health, and is a regular teenager with no restrictions on what she can participate in.
As she looks back at her daughter’s life, Bonamy recalls the impact of Zuri’s health challenges weren’t noticeable as a baby, other than her fine motor skills being delayed due to not being able to crawl in the months after her initial surgery.
“Oftentimes, she couldn’t tell the difference with how she felt because she had always felt that way. Now, she feels more energetic since the second surgery,” said Bonamy.
She said hopefully her daughter will only need a keyhole procedure to replace the heart valve when she is well into adulthood.
With February recognized as Heart Health Awareness month, Bonamy deems it a special time to bring awareness to people of the need to take care of their hearts and raise funds to save children who are in need, because no one never knows when they will need the help.
“I believe it’s also an opportunity to let heart warrior families know that they’re not alone, but we’re a resilient bunch,” she said.
As for her daughter, Bonamy said Zuri believes February is the month of love.
As she looks forward to her daughter’s long and healthy life, Bonamy said she thanks God for entrusting her with what she describes as an “awesome responsibility” of having a “heart warrior” like Zuri who she said lives her life like a normal teenager.
Bonamy shared that she is also grateful for her family and friends who have supported her and her daughter from day one, and that she is especially grateful to God for “touching the heart of Lady Sassoon all those years before Zuri was even born to create the Sassoon Heart Foundation, [and] for the people who give generously to the Bahamas Heart Association.”