The Story of Mupenzi, A 15-year-old Fighting Cancer

Updated: Nov 3, 2021


Mupenzi George, 15, takes a walk outside of the pediatric oncology ward at Butaro District Hospital. Photo by Zack DeClerck / PIH

Before the pandemic happened, Mupenzi George, then 14 years old, was living a happy life in rural Nyagatare district, located in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. He enjoyed going to school and coming home to his mother's warm, loving hugs. He was on top of his world.


Then, one day he came from school with a spontaneous lump on his neck. Since the lump caused him no pain, his mother, Nyiramucyo Immaculée, sent him back to school — hoping it would be gone the next day.

The next day, the lump was still there. As any cautious parent, his mother Immaculée decided it was time to visit the nearest health center.

The antibiotics he had got from the health center showed no effect, the lump aggravated and became typically large and hard.

On the third day, he skipped his school again and went back with her mother Immaculée to see the doctor. The doctor recommended going to the district hospital with advanced equipment because the lump was expanding and there was nothing he could do to help.

As they prepared to go to the district hospital, the COVID-19 pandemic that was taking its toll around the world reached Rwanda, putting daily life and movements at a complete standstill.

The whole country entered the first full lockdown forcing him to live with his illness.

While others were adapting to life in lockdown, Mupenzi was adapting to living with an unpleasant lump on his neck. He was able to eat. He had no fever. He didn’t even feel any pain. However, each day the lump grew bigger in size and was making his breathing difficult.

Later, restrictions on movement were eased and Mupenzi and his mother started their quest for treatment. They spent the next months moving from hospital to hospital, town to town, incurring unbearable financial burdens trying to get the diagnosis.

What at first appeared to be just a simple lump, had become a big burden on the family. Mupenzi couldn’t go to school anymore and his mother had no time to do any other activity.

Through a reference by the Rwandan Military Hospital, Mupenzi and his mother discovered Partners in Health-supported Butaro District Hospital where they received a shocking diagnosis: Mupenzi had Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands spread throughout your body.

Today, after receiving cancer care, Mupenzi George, now 15 years old, is feeling much better, and his grinning smile has returned. He stays in the pediatric oncology ward at Partners In Health-supported Butaro District Hospital, where he receives free comprehensive treatment, and long-term housing.


Nyiramucyo Immaculée cares for her son Mupenzi George, 15, who is staying in the pediatric oncology ward at Butaro District Hospital. Zack DeClerck / PIH
Nyiramucyo Immaculée cares for her son Mupenzi George, 15, who is staying in the pediatric oncology ward at Butaro District Hospital. Photo by Zack DeClerck / PIH

The Hospital also provides free accommodation to his mother Immaculée, like other members of the families caring for their patients, she is facilitated with accommodation, food, and other essentials. Simply because maintaining good health requires more than just medical care.

When she looked back and reflected upon past events and what they had gone through before reaching to Butaro Disctrict, in a recent discussion with Partners In Health global team, Mupenzi’s mother, Immaculée, in a sad voice and wiping tears away with the back of her hand, she said, “If Butaro Hospital didn't exist, my son, Mupenzi George, would not be alive today. The lump inside his nose would have kept on growing, closing the passage of breath, and eventually suffocating him to death.”

Life-saving surgeries and the latest therapies are extending the lives of cancer patients - but not everyone can afford them.


Partners In Health/Inshuti Mu Buzima continues to address health disparities among cancer patients. Each year, Butaro Hospital treats more than 1,700 patients like Mupenzi George, who can’t afford treatment, to ensure that they too have access to cross-cutting cancer treatment.

Patients seeking treatment at the Butaro Cancer Center receive the full spectrum of care, including screening, diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgery, patient follow-up, palliative care, a pathology lab, mental health and social work services, and socioeconomic support, such as food, transportation, home visits, and community health worker accompaniment.

Dr. Joel Mubiligi, PIH/IMB's Executive Director, chatting with Mupenzi George during one of his regular visits with patients in the pediatric oncology ward. Photo by Stella Mucyo / PIH.
Dr. Joel Mubiligi, PIH/IMB's Executive Director, chatting with Mupenzi George during one of his regular visits with patients in the pediatric oncology ward. Photo by Stella Mucyo / PIH.

 

“As a doctor who has worked in Rwanda and Haiti with Partners In Health (PIH) for the past 13 years, I've witnessed what happens when poverty gets in the way of good medical care. People with cancer can't get the care they need, they become sicker, and they become poorer. Families don't have money to send kids to school. Worse yet, kids don't have parents to raise them. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Partners In Health continues to innovate to help those most in need.” – Gene F. Kwan

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