Redempta Muhorakeye’s journey to graduation was anything but certain.
In 2014, she was acutely ill, dying of rheumatic heart disease in Rwanda in a seemingly hopeless circumstance.
This month, on May 21, she is poised to earn her certificate of completion from Lesley University’s Threshold Program, where she has blossomed and is known as a star cook in Threshold’s Food Lab course for her tantalizing chicken piccata and strawberry trifle.
At 23, she reflects on her journey and her progress with gratitude and wonder.
“I’m 100 percent blessed,” she says. “I’m thankful.”
Muhorakeye, who also goes by “Demi,” is one of eight children, raised in a mud and thatch home in a Rwandan village.
She developed a cough, weakness and shortness of breath around age 10. The illness became so debilitating that she could no longer attend school. She recalls lying on the dirt floor in her home, coughing blood and struggling to breathe. She was treated by a doctor in her village and then at the City Hospital of Kigali.
“My doctor, Dr. Rusingiza, told my mom I had to get a surgery in a different country with our own money. We didn’t have anything. My mom told my doctors, ‘Can I take her home and be with her until she dies?’” Muhorakeye recalls. “My doctor was really nice. He said, ‘I’m going to try my best to help you. I don’t want you to lose your daughter.’”
They connected her with a U.S. medical group called Team Heart, founded in 2007 by Dr. Chip Bolman and Ceeya Patton Bolman RN, MSN, that travels to Rwanda. Her only chance for survival was valve replacement cardiac surgery. At age 15, she was selected as one of 16 patients Team Heart operated on in February 2014.
Through this life-saving surgery, she and her family met Team Heart member and nurse practitioner Julie Carragher, from Braintree, Mass., an encounter that would change all their lives.
“It was during the preoperative period that Redempta’s mother asked to speak with me,” recalls Carragher. “Through an interpreter, she pleaded with me to take Redempta to America to raise her and provide for her.
“Her mom made a selfless request to spare Redempta any more suffering, as the family was unable to support Redempta over the course of her recovery from surgery. Redempta’s mom wanted Redempta to have a future and this request of me was an act of love.”
A new life across the globe
The Carraghers sprang to action, and within months, the family had established a scholarship fund, named in memory of the infant daughter they lost in 2003, Zoe Margaret. This enabled them to get Muhorakeye a passport and student visa to study in the United States, and she’s lived here since July 2014.
She recalls feeling frightened and uncertain, but she was immediately embraced as a member of the Carragher family. They sent her to Saint Mary of the Assumption School in Brookline, followed by the Braintree High School Launch Program for special education students between the ages of 18 and 22.
“They are my family,” she says.
They encouraged her to keep learning and helped her enroll in 2020 in Lesley’s postsecondary Threshold Program for young adults with diverse learning and developmental differences.
Life at Lesley
When she arrived at Threshold, Muhorakeye was nervous about living away from the Carraghers and making friends.
“Redempta began our program as a timid young woman often questioning her abilities,” recalls Threshold Director of Alumni and Employment Services Krista DiGregorio. “She became much more self-confident over the past two years and sought out new experiences and further knowledge.”
Muhorakeye adapted to living in a hotel (when dorms were closed due to Covid) and eating in restaurants. She knows how to do her own laundry and shopping, and she’s learned about everything from budgeting to computer and internet literacy.
“I never used a computer before university,” she says. “The Threshold Program means so much to me. They’re really helpful for me every day. It makes me happy. I get everything I need from this program. And I found friends right away.”
She has an internship three days a week at a Sacred Heart School in Weymouth and hopes to work with children.
“They are so cute. I love it. They make me happy. We play together. It’s beautiful and I would love to be a teacher,” says Muhorakeye, whose favorite pastime is going into Harvard Square with her friends from Threshold.
She’ll stay at Threshold for the Transition Year program next year and she hopes to learn more and prepare for independent living.
“It’s hard, but I’m learning,” she says.
It’s been challenging to live far from Rwanda. Her mother passed away in 2017, which has made it that much harder to be apart from her father and her seven brothers and sisters.
“My mom is the one who did everything. I want to keep my family as my mom used to,” she says. “After I’m done at university, I want to help my family. I want to get a job and make money and build a house for them.”
She wants to return home after college, but her medical care is complex.
“Without medicine, I can’t live. I would say it’s more important than food.”
For the time being, she is grateful for her life in Massachusetts and for the skills and bonds she’s developed through Threshold.
“We’re so happy to have Redempta join our wonderful Threshold alumni community,” says DiGregorio. “She is kind and inclusive of all her classmates. She has a wonderful sense of humor and brightens up a room with her smile.”