ROSLYN, N.Y. - A gift of life has come full circle.
Tuesday, the very first recipient of donated heart surgery on Long Island nearly 50 years ago returned from Uganda, to thank volunteers who have since saved thousands of other children worldwide.
As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reports, the little girl is now a grown woman on a mission to give back.
"Today our daughter has come home," said Rob Donno, Gift of Life founder.
There is an unbreakable bond between Grace Agwaru and Donno. When she was just 5, a child in Uganda with a hole in her heart, he was a stranger who saved her life.
"I was always sick, in and out of hospital," Agwaru said. "My parents had been informed that I would not live more than 16 years."
Donno, a member of the Manhasset Rotary Club, read about her desperate case in a magazine and worked wonders to bring her to Long Island's St. Francis Hospital for lifesaving surgery.
"I said to myself, if you never live another day in your life, your life has been worth living," Donno said.
"It was like a gift from God. So to me, it has been the biggest inspiration in my life," Agwaru said.
Her surgery in 1975 set the course to help mend hearts across the globe. After Agwaru, requests poured in, from helping one child to thousands.
"We could help another one, and another one, and another one. And 44,000 children later and 47 years, here we are," Donno said.
Now 52, Agwaru went on to get a masters degree, brought the Rotary Club and the Gift of Life to her hometown in Uganda, and spreads the message.
"Life is the greatest gift that you can ever give or receive," Agwaru said.
Gift of Life doctors rarely have the chance to see how the children they save grow up. They've now trained doctors in Uganda to perform lifesaving surgery there.
"It was devastating back then. Just the diagnosis of it was impossible," said Dr. Sean Levchuck, St. Francis Hospital chair of Pediatric Cardiology.
Agwaru uses her second chance at life to pay it forward.
"I would say it's a miracle. There are too many people to thank for this, and maybe even thanking them is not enough," Agwaru said. "The best way is for me to be able to replicate what they did for other people."
How do you thank someone for the greatest gift? Agwaru says the most important thank you from all of the recipients is to give back.
The Gift of Life network is in more than 80 countries.
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