Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Big hands and a big heart save tiny lives in The Congo

By Heather Whitley, CNN
February 16, 2014 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A phone call to former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo saves triplets in The Congo
  • Dikembe Mutombo Foundation built a hospital and has treated more than 30,000 patients
  • 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in The Congo since 1998

Atlanta (CNN) -- Three years ago, a woman gave birth to premature triplets in a small village clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The doctors were not equipped to provide the medical care these tiny patients required, so the parents were told the babies would simply be left to die.

But the triplets' father had heard about a new, state-of-the-art hospital just up the road built by Congolese American and former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo. The father begged the doctors to call the United States.

"So they called me, and they said, 'Mr. Mutombo, there's three babies coming from one person. Can we take them? The man doesn't work; the wife doesn't work.' I said, 'Please, make them live.' "

Mutombo says that phone call is just one example of why he decided to open a hospital in his hometown of Kinshasa. Built with funds raised through his Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, the hospital bears the name of his mother, Biamba Marie Mutombo, who he says taught him the importance of helping others.

"For everything she did for her children and for her family, the value of love and giving back and sharing. Not just with you, not just with your family, but with the people you encounter in life, with your community, and that was the kind of love that my mom gave."

According to an International Rescue Committee study, 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in the Congo since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Sadly, the outpouring of love taught by Mutombo's mother was cut short when his parents' city came under attack in 1998. Mutombo says that after shooting in the streets, soldiers enforced a curfew and prevented his father from taking his ailing mother to a nearby hospital.

About an hour later, his beloved mother died in her living room.

For Mutombo, his mom was no less a victim than if she had been shot herself. She's just one of the millions who have died in this civil war whose deaths, he believes, were preventable. "There was people who wasn't killed by the gunfight, but they were denied access to the health care," he said. "If there was no chaos in the capital city of Kinshasa, my mom would be alive.

"She had no reason to die."

Mutombo hopes his hospital will help provide medical care desperately needed in the Congo. He says the hospital has treated more than 30,000 patients and employs nearly 400 doctors and nurses.

And those triplets? They spent more than three months on life-saving machines and now are thriving toddlers. The parents were so grateful that they named the babies after the 7-foot, 2-inch basketball player.

Mutombo laughed as he recalled the story.

"The guy said, 'You saved my babies. So your family gets all the names.' And I said, 'But they're going to get confused on the street one day and think they're my kids!' "

Mutombo's hospital also hired the triplets' father as a sanitation worker so the family can afford to pay for the care their children need.

"You're talking about impact. That's the impact that we are making," Mutombo said with a smile. "We are touching lives. We are changing the living conditions of the people."

He says the next issue he wants to tackle in the Congo is education.

"Half of the population in Africa right now is under the age of 15 years old," Mutombo said. "But we are not finding the time to educate those people because of the violence."

In the next few years, Mutombo hopes to build a school in the Congolese village where his parents grew up. He says he will name the school in memory of his father, who devoted his entire career to education.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT