Farida and her polar bear.

Farida…ready to leave Cleveland Clinic after successful surgery.

It was in January 2001 that I met Luisa Morales and her 4 year old granddaughter, Farida Ramirez. They sat in my living room, Luisa stoically posed like a cadet, holding the little one on her lap. The child’s bright brown eyes were trained on mine. But the pale blue that circled them and her lips was the forecast for their visit.

Luisa was placing before me a challenge that I doubted could be won…a  child teetering on the edge of death.  Farida had been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. A damaged pulmonary vessel could no longer carry sufficient oxygen from her lungs to her heart. And then there was the hole between her heart chambers needing to be repaired.

The two had covered a lot of ground, searching for help throughout Nicaragua. But it was the same story again and again—-help for Farida does not exist in Nicaragua.

Luisa held up a tiny hand to show me even more solid proof: pale blue beneath the baby’s miniature fingernails. I had more than enough evidence of Farida’s need for help, but I didn’t know where I could find it.  There was no choice but to promise I would try. I would send copies of Farida’s medical records on a journey of hope to the  U.S.  What I didn’t mention was the long shot that we would get answers.

It was my close friend, Ann Savage living in Cleveland, Ohio, who moved us a giant step forward when she cornered a senator at a party. Having grown up in a show-business family, Ann knew how to use theatrics to get her point across. The senator listened with a sincere interest  not usually attributed to politicians. And so, through a congressional grapevine, Farida’s story reached Cleveland Clinic. Within a week I received a message from Dr.John Rhodes, a pediatric cardiologist on the hospital staff, inviting Farida to be a patient and to receive full surgical services.

The specialised surgery would be performed by Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb, a young South African who was surgical director of pediatric cardiac and lung transplantation.. Because he was scheduled to leave Cleveland Clinic to join the staff in another hospital, we would need to be at Cleveland Clinic by January 5 for surgery on the 7th.  Farida’s chances of survival were looking better with each day. Our hope was beginning to overshadow our fears.  Another flurry of email “begging letters” brought an offer from Bob Jack, a Texan retiree who spent his days doing exactly what we now needed for Farida. Free air flights for both child and grandmother through Continental Airlines’ charitable arm called CareForce. Bob Jack was their one-man volunteer who worked out of his home, arranging flights for distressed children from Latin America to U.S. hospitals.

We landed in Cleveland on January 2. Luisa carried the bundled child from the plane into a wind-blurred wintery world that she didn’t realize existed. By now the blue hue had turned into a noticeable bruise-like blue. We hoped that curious onlookers didn’t see us as child abusers.

Ann met us at the airport, then whisked us to her home in Mayfield Heights, conveniently close to the famous Cleveland Clinic. Luisa and Farida woke up the next morning to view their first snowfall, both of them hypnotised by soft white flakes floating past the window.  “I saw this snow on TV before,” Luis said. “But I didn’t think it was real.” This was the first time I saw Luisa smile since she entered my life three weeks ago.

A whirlwind of diagnostic tests filled our next few days. And then the hour was on us. Luisa, Ann and I watched a small child wheeled away from us to a foreign place that held the possibility of a miracle.

Seven hours passed slowly, seeming like seven years before Dr. Drummond-Webb emerged from the surgery suite. He spoke only for a few moments, explaining that he had just completed two surgeries back to back and had not slept for nearly 24 hours. He left us with little information, except that the six and a half hour surgery was much more difficult than anticipated, but an artificial artery now reached from her heart to her lung. The hole between her heart chambers had also been repaired. Farida was alive! ….But the next 24 hours would be critical.Though Ann and I took turns between sleeping and sitting next to Farida, Luisa never left the child’s bedside. She refused to take a turn to sleep and chastised herself if she happened to doze for just a few seconds.

As children do, Farida regained her strength quickly, and at times we found ourselves surprised to see a bright, lively child in our midst. The “blue” was fading as oxygen entered into its rightful place in her little body.  We returned to Nicaragua a week and a half later with a child who would soon run and play with her friends, her face flushed with happiness.

dr jonathan drummond webb

Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb

As for the surgeon who performed this miracle, we never saw him after he left us for his much-needed sleep though we had hoped to thank him for giving us Farida.

It was three years later in December 2004 while working at my computer with the TV in front of  me that I heard the news. Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb was dead. Depression pushed him over the edge.  Apparently the doctor was mentally ravaged by the loss of the few children that he was unable to save. But he never spoke of the hundreds who were alive because of his outstanding surgical capabilities.

Farida Morales Ramirez, once just weeks away from her own death, is among them. Though she never met the man who saved her, she  knows who he was and will never forget him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Donna and Friend

Donna Tabor blogs about life in Nicaragua.

%d bloggers like this: