Surgeons in Operating Room
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Alex

Gitungano

Founder and President

 

OUR FOUNDER'S STORY

Justice Health Initiative, Inc. is a non-profit organization based in Boston that focuses on providing holistic healthcare access to patients, especially children from around the world with severe and rare diseases that cannot be treated in their home countries. We plan to increase other services and activities gradually to reach our vision.

 

The jewelry that shines today was not shining when it was found in the dirt yesterday. My life journey started with pain from a young age. I found myself as a refugee at the age of four when the civil war broke out in 1993 in Burundi. My mother, sisters and I had to run for our lives without knowing exactly where to go without shelter, food, or any other basic needs. I was also still grieving for my stepbrother, cousin and other beloved family members who were killed. I left everything behind me, and our house was destroyed, too. 

We fled to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which at that time was still Zaire. One year after arriving in the DRC, my mother lost over 90% of her family members in the Rwandan genocide. Life was hard in the DRC. I couldn’t understand at all what I was going through. I witnessed other children dying from infectious diseases and malnutrition. I thought, “will I be next?” I did get sick with malaria, other infectious diseases, and malnutrition, but it was not my time to go. My mother, as a mama bear, could not watch her kids dying with her own eyes and did everything she could to save us.  She treasured her Kitenge, colorful pieces of fabric that women wear in Africa, but decided to sell them so that she could bring us to the hospital to get treatment. When there was nothing else to sell anymore, she could not afford to take us to the hospital or buy any medicines. My siblings and I were getting sick and malnutritioned again. When we arrived in DRC, we depended on the World Food Program (WFP) for food. We were so thin to the point you could count the number of our ribs. My younger sister, Jane, got malaria and almost died. My mother, who was desperate, came up with what I thought was an insightful idea. She gave us a smoothie made of Cola, tomato paste and yogurt as medicine. I have no idea how this cured us. It was only God’s grace. My mom is always grateful that we survived our time in the DRC, because so many parents lost their children. 

"I couldn’t understand at all what I was going through. I witnessed other children dying from infectious diseases and malnutrition. I thought, “will I be next?”

In 1996, when I was 10 years old, a war broke out in the DRC.  All Burundian refugees in the DRC at that time were targeted to be killed, so even though the war in Burundi had not ended, we had to flee the DRC and return to Burundi. We traveled by a wooden boat because traveling by car would have been too dangerous. The boat started to sink, so we had to go back and try again the next day. On our second attempt, we made it safely across the lake to Burundi.

 

We had to start a new life in Burundi, because our home had been destroyed by war. We started a new life renting an apartment in a new town. My mom had to work hard to provide for our needs and pay our school fees. My dad also tried to help but he was not always present in our lives due to polygamy. Despite all these challenges, my mother was always committed to helping others in need. As a young boy, I used to see her feeding children and adults who didn’t have food at their homes. She would also help patients in the hospital, friends, and strangers. Her care ministry inspired me to go and help those in need, especially people in the hospital.  

She cooked, brought meals to patients in the hospital, washed their clothes, and often bought for them whatever they might need. I would say that I inherited from my mother the calling to care and love for people with health issues. When I went to high school, I followed the path of my mother’s ministry and started visiting patients in the hospital. I used to go and talk to them, encourage, and pray for them. I didn’t have much to offer, but when my mother gave me pocket money to buy lunch or snacks or to pay for a bike taxi, I would buy some bananas, oranges or bread and give to the patients. These are people that I didn’t know. I have amazing stories and memories of people who were impacted through this noble ministry. Later on, I started visiting patients with my friends from my church every Sunday afternoon. I was still visiting my own patients during the week after school. When others went home to have lunch, I went straight to the hospital to visit patients. The hospital that I often visited was “Prince Regent Charles Hospital '' named after Prince Charles who was a member of the Belgian royal family who served as regent of Belgium from 1944 until 1950. The hospital was halfway between my home and school. One time I helped an old man named “Babu” (an endearing term for an elderly male). He was from Rwanda, suffered from various chronic diseases and had no one to take care of him. My mother asked me to take care of him. I cared for Babu until he died.

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"Her care ministry inspired me to go and help those in need, especially people in the hospital."

I started to volunteer in local and international Non-Profit Organizations. I volunteered at Youth For Christ Burundi (YFCB) for more than 12 years. YFCB is an international organization that runs medical centers, schools, and orphanages around the country. I served with my whole heart in any way they needed me to. One day, the director approached me with a picture of a young man named Freddy Uwizeyimana. At the age of ten, Freddy suffered an epileptic seizure and fell into a cooking fire and was burned from his face down to his chest and both hands. His whole face and hands were damaged by the fire, and he was considered an outcast in the community. In order to survive, he had to beg on the street. Freddy spent years without getting any special treatments. Then, a missionary friend of mine found him and was able to raise funds for him to get treatments in Kenya. However, Freddy needed someone to take care of him while receiving treatments. The missionary reached out to YFCB to find a volunteer. Many volunteers were scared to help him, because of his disfigured face. I, too, wasn’t sure I could do that. After much thought about his condition, I prayed about it and talked to my mom. Within a couple of days, I knew I had to help Freddy. I made the decision to travel and support him through his medical treatment journey. Originally, I thought it would be only one treatment. I ended up helping Freddy for three years while I was in college studying Clinical and Social Psychology. I used all my summer times and school break, as well as weekends. I was often late to school and even missed classes a couple times. But, none of this mattered. I loved him and we had become friends. From 2011 to 2013 I traveled with him to Kenya multiple times, not only as caregiver but also as his translator. I learned how to take care of him and his wounds and support him emotionally using my counseling skills.

 

By February of 2013, Freddy’s condition had improved. Through plastic surgery, a new jaw and lips were created, his face was reconstructed, and his fingers straightened out and he was able to return to his village and start school. I am still in touch with Freddy to this day. I have also helped him to receive additional treatments on his jaw in 2019 while I’m here in the States. 

 

"I loved him and we had become friends."

I graduated from college in June of 2013 and continued volunteering. Three months later, I was asked to help another burn survivor. A 2-year old boy, named Leo, had fallen into a cooking fire. His mother had to take one of her ten children to the hospital and had left Leo with his older siblings. His siblings left Leo alone close to the cooking fire in the house where they were sitting and went outside to play. Leo fell between the three cooking stones, with his head becoming lodged between two of the stones. His lips, eyes, and nose were severely damaged, a large section of his hair was gone, he lost vision in his right eye and he got burned on his right hand. As in Freddy's case, apart from cleaning his open wounds and giving him ethanol, Leo could not get the necessary treatment to save him in the village hospital. Another missionary found Leo in the hospital and brought him to the capital, Bujumbura, to try to see if they could save his vision at least. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. That’s when the missionary learned about my story and reached out to me to see if I would help. The missionary had made a connection with a hospital in Rwanda to treat his vision and asked me to take care of Leo during his treatment at this hospital. I immediately said yes, not knowing where this journey would take us.

I remember going home with this question in my mind: “Why do people keep calling me to do this? I helped Freddy, but it doesn’t mean that I have a lot of experiences with burn survivors.” I couldn’t find the answer at the moment. I went home and told my mother about Leo. She stared at me and said, “Alex, you helped Freddy and others, why not, Leo? Did you know that you were burned twice when you were little?” I immediately remembered that when I was the same age as Leo, I was burned by a petrol lamp twice on my belly. For all this time, I was helping burned survivors without remembering that I was also one of them. I broke down with tears right away. 

"She stared at me and said, “Alex, you helped Freddy and others, why not, Leo? Did you know that you were burned twice when you were little?”

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I traveled with Leo to Rwanda, as well as to Uganda, but because of limited medical treatment Leo couldn’t get the help he needed. We went back to Burundi without any hope for Leo. Through a connection of a friend of one of my missionary friends, Shriners heard about Leo and offered free care for him. There were many challenges to travel with a child who was not related to me. Miraculously, we were able to get all the necessary legal documents in three months, such as the power of attorney and visas.  

 

Leo and I began our journey to Boston. Even though I had no experience taking care of a child and I was afraid, I knew I had been called to help this young child and that God would guide us. People often feel sorry for Leo when looking at him. When I look at Leo, I see God’s face and see his scars as beauty. What began as a commitment to be Leo’s caregiver for 6 months has turned into Leo and I becoming a family. It has been 7 years and I am now his legal guardian. Leo has received several surgeries over the years - on his skull, face, lower and upper eyelids, nose, and lips. He is currently receiving the tissue expansion procedures at Shriners. My journey with Leo has been a journey of learning - a journey of hope, faith, and love. Our lives have changed. I became a parent without knowing or any preparation - and Leo has become my son. A friend of mine told me, “Doctors are working on Leo’s face. God is working on your heart.” That is true. I have learned more about patience, compassion, and humility - about unconditional love and about putting someone else’s needs before your own. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are we doing for others?”

 

Our story has been covered by the Boston Globe Magazine and other media outlets. As people learned about mine and Leo’s story, I began to be contacted by many people in countries with limited resources asking me to help them get treatment. I desperately wanted to help them, but I couldn’t do it on my own. I decided to start a nonprofit organization to help all these people. I knew I needed additional education to achieve this goal. I got an opportunity to do a Public Health Masters degree in Global Health and Program Management at Boston University and officially graduated in 2019. I had an idea to start Justice Health Initiative (JHI), a nonprofit whose mission is to provide access to healthcare for underserved patients with severe and rare orphan diseases, especially children, who cannot be treated in their home countries due to limited resources and medical technology. However, because I focus so much on Leo’s medical needs and care, I put my idea on hold. 

"My journey with Leo has been a journey of learning - a journey of hope, faith, and love. Our lives have changed. I became a parent without any preparation - and Leo has become my son."

Recently, a friend of mine was at the hospital in Burundi and found out about conjoined twins, whose family is without any help or hope for their future treatments. My friend reached out to me and asked if I would help. When I saw the pictures of the two babies in need of urgent care, I could not say “NO” anymore. I realized this was the time to start my organization. I sat down on my couch and cried, “Lord, help me what to do.” That is always my shortest prayer in time of need. Immediately, I got an idea of reaching out to Leo’s surgeon at Shriners, Dr. Ehrlichman, who is a good friend of ours. Shriners was unable to help the twins, but Dr. Ehrlichman put me in touch with a couple of doctors at Mass General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. When MGH received the medical records of the twins, they agreed to treat them. MGH is one of the best hospitals in the country and world.  Unfortunately, the twins passed away in Burundi before coming to Mass General Hospital for treatments. The heartbreaking loss of the twins has fueled my passion and commitment to help more people in honor of the twins. 

 

I realized I could no longer put my idea of Justice Health Initiative (JHI) on hold. JHI is now an official 501c3 nonprofit organization. A mentor of mine always says “One is too small to achieve greatness.” I can’t do this by myself. I need you. Would you join me in supporting Justice Health Initiative? It is all about changing lives. The best way you can help yourself is to help someone else. I want to speak up and defend the right to healthcare for those who cannot speak for themselves. As Proverbs 31:8-9 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” 

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"I could not say “NO” anymore and this was the time to start my organization."

I am so grateful for the love and support Leo and I received over the years.  I always feel like I owe so much to those who helped us. With Justice Health Initiative, I can pay back those who helped us by helping others.  

 

Interestingly, I was reminded by a friend that my name “Alexis” (Alex) means “Defender” and “Helper.” I asked Google and Google confirmed it 😊

 

Would you join me? 

 

Thank you. 

 

Alex Gitungano

Alongside this video, The Boston Globe released an article in 2015 in two parts about Leo's life. To read these please click the buttons below. 

Additional articles in the Boston Globe about Alex and Leo

Leadership team

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Alex Gitungano, MPH - Executive Director
Alex is a public health professional with a background in clinical and social psychology. He is very known for his compassion and humanitarian work towards people with critical health conditions. For over 10 years, Alex has helped many people with severe conditions receive life-saving treatment especially in the United States and East-Africa. In 2021, Alex started Justice Health Initiative, Inc. (JHI), a nonprofit to change lives through the provision of holistic healthcare.

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Marc O’Neil - Chairman of the Board

Marc is currently the state relationship manager for Straight Ahead Ministries - a non-profit organization focused on providing support programs for juvenile offenders. In his role, he is responsible for managing the relationships between Straight Ahead and the juvenile detention centers of Massachusetts. He is also responsible for recruiting, training and overseeing the volunteers who lead Straight Ahead programs in the state’s detention centers. Marc has twenty years’ experience in relationship management and marketing working in the corporate environment.

 

Dave Hoyme, MBA  - Treasurer

David is currently the Director of International Growth and Expansion at Metro Africa Express (MAX). MAX is the largest vehicle subscription platform in Africa. David resides in Ghana with his family. David began his career with Overland Missions where he led development projects in sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. After Overland, David attended the MIT Sloan School then spent seven years in the financial services industry with Goldman Sachs and Eventide Asset Management.

Sandra Rizkallah - Clerk

Sandra, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Plugged In Band Program, has a degree in film and television from Emerson College.​ Sandra has produced her own documentaries and has worked in the post-production department of NOVA at WGBH.

Elizabeth Sucher - Fundraising Chair

Liz is a marketing and sales professional with 20+ years of leading teams at several media organizations including, The Boston Globe, Compliance Week and now at Monster Worldwide. And as a mom of a special needs young adult, Liz knows a thing or two about navigating hospital systems and advocating for needed healthcare. 

Richard Ehrlichman, MD

Dr. Richard J. Ehrlichman is a plastic surgeon in Boston, Massachusetts and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Southern New Hampshire Medical Center and North Shore Medical Center-Salem. He received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years. His specialties are in plastic surgery, as well as replacing  skin, bone, and other tissues. Dr. Ehrlichman is also a Colonel in the United States Army Medical Corps and is the Senior State Physician for the Massachusetts National Guard.

Omar Sultan Haque, MD, PhD

Dr. Omar Sultan Haque is a psychiatrist, social scientist, and philosopher who studies issues ranging from global health, anthropology, social psychology, to bioethics, law, and religion. Dr. Omar Haque is an honors graduate of Harvard Medical School, and Brown and Yale University, and has 16 years of caring for patients. Dr. Omar’s work focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and schizophrenia. At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Haque is a faculty member in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine/Program in Psychiatry and the Law; he is also a UNESCO Chair in Bioethics. He has received several awards for his work accomplishments.