Miracle or Coincidences…

Miracle or coincidences.  My story about a 9 year-old Nicaraguan boy is full of whatever you want to believe. All I know is — I was there when it all unraveled before my eyes.

Nine year old Roberto Romero suffered damaged corneas since he was two with no hope for a transplant that would give him his sight again.

Roberto Romero didn’t have eyes, per se. His had been ravaged by a wicked  infection when he was only two. From then on,  his corneas were no more.

When I met him,  he was sitting in a dark room, suffering his daily horrendous headache.  Without corneas, he couldn’t tolerate sunlight, nor could he attend school. Actually he couldn’t do much of anything. His only world, other than his family, was a radio.

That was back in 2000.   So let’s start at  that point:

It was because of my stolen computer that I met Roberto’s father, Jose. He was the cop who answered my frantic call early that morning and listened to my scattered rant. The loss of the computer was traumatic enough. It was the lost information that was truly devastating.

On its disk were stored medical records of a 4-year old Nica child needing a specialized surgery.  This story will come to light down the blog road. But for now, suffice to say the info was that minute sliver of hope that could possibly save her life. It could be recouped, but not without a lot of time. And her time was short.

I pleaded with Officer Romero to  find my computer so we could get her the needed help in a U.S. hospital . He promised to do his best. Then as he stood to leave, he pulled a folded paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. No words were spoken. But his steady stare told me that this was serious business.

Note the “coincidence’ at this point: an important paper in his pocket at a chance meeting with me.  Here was the story of his son Roberto and  the diagnosis  of  a Nicaraguan ophthalmologist:  Roberto would only see again with a corneal transplant. This, it stated,  would be impossible in Nicaragua.

Officer Romero’s unwritten question was obvious;  If there is medical help in the U.S. for a little Nicaraguan girl, could there also be help for his son?There was no chance that this civil servant in blue could hope to restore his child’s eyesight.  Not on a salary of $75 a month. And not in Nicaragua.

I shrugged my shoulders. I had no answer. I could only say I would try. But I kept my doubts to myself.

He  left for the police station. There he would type my story with his index finger on an antiquated Remington with missing keys. He would make the triplicate copies with the help of carbon paper and a bottle of white-out.  Those would no doubt be filed away in a dark drawer, never again to see the light of day.

I then called Brett, told him the story, and we were off in different directions in one day.  I was in e-mail search of ophthalmologists in the U.S., asking for medical advice. Brett took Roberto to Managua to be examined by visiting U.S brigade doctors. Was Roberto a transplant candidate, we wanted to know? The consensus was more than likely —- No.

Our contact with Officer Romero became less and less as time passed. We leaned toward situations where we  could see a possible successful result.

And nearly a year passed before Brett heard the first hopeful news:  The Flying Hospital had touched down in Augusto Sandino Airport in Managua. This gigantic metal bird was just that — a hospital with wings that carried medical teams to developing countries to serve the poor.This mission would…coincidentally….address eye diseases. More coincidences.

Brett made the call and told Roberto’s story. Bring him in, he was told. The boy could be squeezed in for a 15-minute exam.

We hoped that this visit could at least put this case to rest, even if the verdict was that Roberto was  not a suitable transplant candidate.  But if  we got the hoped-for thumbs up, we would start the long process of trying to get him to the U.S. for surgery..

We found Officer Romero at the station and arranged to pick him up with his son early the next day. Brett and I would have to make the arduous drive on  gully-gutted roads  into Barrio La Prusia to the Romero home before dawn. That drive was difficult even in broad daylight.

Little was said on our way to the airport. Neither Brett nor I wanted to build up hopes that could be dashed by a doctor’s conclusion. But then we really had no expectations since we had already been told that a transplant wasn’t a feasible option at this stage

The sight of “The Flying Hospital”  stilled us.  We stood in a reverent silence, staring out to the foggy airfield at a magnificent creation sent to this impoverished country to restore the sight of  its people. That Roberto would be one of them was doubtful. But we were here and we took our places in the long line of hopefuls.  Some came to have crossed eyes straightened. Others hoped to have cataracts stripped off.  We waited only for an answer.

Officer Romero’s face was a billboard with a big question mark on it.  “What the hell are doing here?”  it seemed to ask.  Brett and I kept explaining the concept of the plane. But its relationship to a hospital was a mystery to him. At this point, he was here only because of trust in us.

Then it was Roberto’s turn to be checked.  A nurse held a small flashlight that poked its glare into his blind eye.  And from that moment everything  went on fast forward.

The nurse was on a walkie-talkie within seconds, waving with her other hand to follow her.  As we sprinted across the tarmac toward the Flying Hospital, she was shouting into her mouthpiece:  “Dr. Marks!  Your corneal transplant just walked in!”  But by now, we weren’t walking, we were running, clutching Roberto’s hand as he stumbled to keep up with us.

Jose didn’t understand English but he could read our faces.   Between huffs and puffs, as we sprinted across the tarmac  toward the plane, Brett explained that  we were going to see a doctor. We said nothing more because we knew nothing more. Except that good news might be waiting for us inside that giant with wings.

Inside the plane, an eye surgeon, Dr. Marks, announced that there was a cornea, just one, on the Flying Hospital.  He was a religious man, he told us, and he had prayed that someone needing this gift would come in.

One young man had already been in the line and needed a cornea, but in the surgeon’s opinion, the boy didn’t qualify. He could  see with his other eye.  This valuable tissue would go only to someone who was fully blind. Roberto, he felt, was a perfect candidate.  Surgery would be the next morning —– the last day that the Flying Hospital would  be in Nicaragua before it flew to Gambia.

(Are you still following the “coincidence trail” here?)

The next morning we were at the airfield  at 6:30. We watched a steady stream of cataract patients and cross-eyed children pass before us, into and out of surgeries.

Then finally, it was Roberto’s turn.  He was led into the surgery suite in the back of the  plane while prayers, cheers and signs of the cross filled the room.

Jose watched his son disappear behind a set of white curtains. Then we were led tp seats in the passenger section. It was then that we noticed the giant screen facing us in  front  — and within minutes we were staring at a giant eyeball staring back at us.  It was Roberto’s blind eye, wide open, ready to accept the most valuable  gift of his life. Sight.  A stationary camera was trained on his eyeball so that we in the passenger section could view the surgery, stitch by stitch.

Ah yes, a fight attendant actually passed through the aisle and served lunch as I wondered who wrote this way-too-perfect script!  The audience commented among themselves that we all were witnessing a miracle as the surgeon’s steady fingers applied hair-fine stitches along a cornea and fastening it to Roberto’s eyeball.

Only one cornea meant only one eye. The surgery was short. And then, Roberto was wheeled out of the surgery suite and to a recovery area. Cheers and applause broke out, not just for Dr. Marks, a true hero that day, but also for a brave little boy.

Soon after Brett and I gathered at Roberto’s bedside  with the medical staff, many of them praying for a child whose life could change dramatically that day, if all went well.

It was then that Dr. Marks offered one yet another coincidence: As he prepared to leave the hospital in the U.S. to join the Flying Hospital team, a nurse handed him a small ice box to take with him.   “There’s one cornea in here, ” she told him. “Just in case.”  Then Dr. Mark was out the door and en route to Nicaragua, wondering what he’d do with one frozen cornea.

When Roberto was fully awake, we drove father and son home.  Once in their barrio, it was slow-riding over the deeply-rutted path, taking care not to disturb the fragile stitches around the new cornea.  His mother, grandmother and neighbors were waiting in the dusk ahead of us, looking for signs of our headlights.

Roberto’s mother, Adela, began to cry, partly for joy but also for fear.  She took a sleepy boy with an eye patch into her arms, then led him into their dark shack.


Brett took father and son back to the Flying Hospital for a final examination with Dr. Mark before the plane’s take-of later that day.

“How many fingers do you see, Roberto?”  asked Dr. Mark.

“One. I see one.”  There was a hint of pride in Roberto’s shy voice.

“And now?”  Asked the Doctor.


“Right on both counts.”

Roberto Romero , with his aunt and grandmother, holds his anti-rejection medication.‏

It’s eleven years later now, and Roberto can see.  His vision is blurry, and it’s only through one eye.   He will use anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life. Though there is no guarantee that his body won’t the reject the new cornea at some later time…even ten years from now….we believe  otherwise.  He has no need for a dark room each day. Instead he goes to school and hangs out with his friends in his barrio.

Coincidences?  Maybe.  A miracle?  Perhaps we were invited to help it happen.  But the answer isn’t  as important to us as seeing Roberto Romero smiling in the sunlight.

Brett was a young American from Oklahoma who worked tirelessly for the health and welfare of poor Nicaraguans, especially single women and their children,  during his time in Nicaragua.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen Burney
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 09:35:51

    Hi Donna… What a wonderful story.


  2. Wenda Ferraioli
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:30:40

    You along with those who participated in this boys story are the hands and feet of Jesus here on Earth. A miracle indeed. Our God is an awesome God.
    He gifted you with a passion you use well. Proud to be your friend.


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Donna and Friend

Donna Tabor blogs about life in Nicaragua.

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