For a Child Named Santos

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In my bedroom in Pittsburgh, PA, the flimsy white cross seems out of place on my bookcase. It is fragile and home made, so simple among my richly-glazed Nicaraguan pottery.  The name of a Salvadoran girl,  Santos Chavarria Luna, is painted on it.   Age 5, the cross tells us.

Back in the late 90’s I joined a group of protesters marching to shut down The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. We also referred to it as ” School of the Assassins”  due to its roster of graduates:  High-ranking military officers responsible for the brutal deaths of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, of five Jesuit priests from Spain who were teaching at San Salvador’s University of Central America, for the 1981 massacre of 800-plus innocent Salvadoran camposinos in their northern village, El Mozote.  Most of the dead at El Mozote were children. Many of them babies, decapitated or thrown in the air and stabbed with bayonets.

Coincidentally  I had visited the killing grounds of El Mozote after the massacre. Then it was a barren plot of nothingness except for a small iron “silhouette” of a family of four holding hands; a monument to remember a collective life that was no more because everyone had been brutally murdered. Santos Chavarria Lunas had lived in El Mozote and died there with her family.

As the protesters formed a group  preparing to enter the SOA grounds, white crosses were hastily handed out to everyone by organizers for the illegal “crossing the line of the “School of the Assassins.”  I reached for the cross being handed to me and held it up toward the sunlight to read it. Each cross bore the name of a murder victim whose death could be traced to a proud graduate of SOA.
How could it be?  Of the hundred-plus crosses being distributed, this one in my hands wore the words “El Mozote”  scribbled across the wood bar, and there was a child’s name…Santos Chavarria Luna. Age 5.  The significance of my being in this place was beginning to deepen. This was more than a protest march for me. It was like a graveside visit for a little girl that I had never met but who now was finding a special place in my heart. I had visited what was once her home, where she played with her brothers and sisters, sat on her father’s lap and kissed her mother goodnight. Now they all were gone.

Holding the cross high,  I moved  forward with other trespassers as we headed for the demarcation line that was meant to separate us from SOA property on the other side. Illegal trespassing?  I didn’t care. This was all I could do for a child whose right to live was smashed because of SOA.

I was arrested, of course. That was the point.  My white  cross was taken from me just before I was taken away to be processed as a criminal.  I promised myself that I would remember every detail of my cross…to be thankful for the short time that I was able to carry it…to never forget the name of this child who died at the hands of brutal killers. Their training officers  learned their skill right here where I was now standing.

I faced a friendly prosecutor who suggested that instead of purposefully breaking the law, I could be home with my family “shooting a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.” His face lit up when he emphasized  “shooting”. After a bevy of personal questions, I was told that I would be released since this was my first offense. But if I returned to SOA again, I would face a 2-year prison term and fined a hefty amount that exceeded far more than I could earn in a year.

I was led outside the processing hall where a guard pointed to the ground’s exit and suggested that I leave immediately.  As I walked away, I passed behind a large open-bed truck filled with…could I believe my eyes?…white crosses high up in a twisted pile. They had been tossed there haphazardly, obviously confiscated from the protesters and thrown away like garbage.

One cross seemed to light up like a bright neon before my eyes. “Santos Chavarria Luna, age 5”…I stood in disbelief and stared. It was MY cross, waiting for me to take it away from this odious place!  Within seconds all that was left of Santos Chavarria Luna was cradled in my arms. She was going home with me.

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LUPITA…THE MONKEY FROM THE LAKE ISLETA

Followers of my Facebook page agonized with me as I tried to get help to rescue a stranded monkey on one of the small isletas in Lake Nicaragua.  So, to share with my faithful NeverNacatamale followers, this blog is about Lupita, and how she came to live in George Russell’s monkey hut in Granada.  This article from the Nica Times sums up the many posts I made on my Facebook page.

Read article here.

George helps Lupita settle in.

George helps Lupita settle in.

WHEN I WAS JUST 7 YEARS OLD…

….. I might have been the only vet in my hometown of Williamsport, PA.

I’m not sure I even knew the meaning of “veterinarian.” But I set up my little clinic on our family’s back porch for my patients:  my kitten Taffy and our neighbor’s calico cat and puppy.

My focus wasn’t healing animals but rather making sure they didn’t get sick in the first place. That’s why force-feeding cooked carrots to my patients was always first on my daily agenda.

I outfitted the makeshift ward with my doll furniture, at great personal sacrifice I might add. There were two cribs, a small table with stools in case my patients wanted to have a spot of tea (though none ever did), and a high chair where I would sequester my bribed patients and plead with them to taste the mashed carrots.

To add a touch of professionalism to my caregiving, I pinned a folded Kleenex across my head to pass myself off as a nurse. But that didn’t make the carrots palatable either.

A lot of time went into coaxing our neighbor’s calico to lie down in the crib and stay under the blanket. That would last five seconds tops before she’d escape back to her home next door. It was difficult for me to accept this lack of appreciation.

In spite of the little critters’ bad attitude, I clung to my larger vision of some day having a major vet hospital that would also accommodate horses. Every seven-year old kid loves horses.

It was two neighborhood brothers, wicked as Satan himself, who smashed my dream. They literally put the final nail in the coffin of my sweet kitten Taffy.

They took Taffy behind their house and beat her with a ketchup bottle, smashing her little skull. This was traumatic enough for a kid my age. But they extended their malice by leading me to the killing ground to show off my dead kitten.

Revenge is difficult for one seven-year old against two teenage heartless brutes. But I screamed at them as loud as I could: “ I hope God punishes you! I hope you both get POLIO!”

They laughed at me.

Within a year and before the Salk vaccine was developed, both boys were stricken with polio. I find myself still hoping that God didn’t take me at my word. I would have preferred a bad case of poison ivy or maybe hemorrhoids as due punishment. But I won’t question God. And when you really think about it, polio isn’t quite as bad as a crushed skull.

So without my model patient Taffy, I closed our town’s only pet clinic and went back to being Dale Evans, queen of the cowgirls, with the neighbor kids who preferred Wild West drama.

In spite of my clinic’s short existence, animals occupied a place in my life long after my dream was dismantled.

Soon after it’s closing, my Dad, always amused by the unusual, presented my brother and me with Stinky the Skunk. A barber friend, a man he called “Drag Ass” because of his short stature, had tired of its novelty in his shop, so he gave Stinky to Dad to give to us.

Stinky was definitely a misnomer since he had already been “deodorized. He was the hit of our household until he bit my Dad’s thumb. Then his popularity took a nosedive and Stinky was gifted to another barber.

Later Jasper the squirrel monkey, acquired on a Florida vacation, lived with us until he swung one too many times in our neighbor’s trees.

Jasper the squirrel monkey

On that fateful day, he swung from limb to limb above their picnic table where guests were feasting. Wanting to join the party, Jasper dropped his furry self into a big bowl of potato salad and hopped from plate to plate, carrying off as much food as his scrawny arms could hold.

The frightened guests screamed and scattered, perhaps believing that a gorilla wasn’t too far behind.

Jasper was sent back to Florida as fast as we could arrange his getaway before the police could find him and haul him away.

Years later, I went off to Penn State University and lived in what had once been a male dormitory. I brought my goldfish to the campus to live with me. They swam in luxury in the urinals since we females weren’t using them — except for the one reserved for rinsing our panty hose.

But their lives were snuffed out when a new member of the Squeaky Cleaning Squad mistakenly flushed them to the big river in the sky, not realizing that American Standard appliances could have multiple functions, condos for pet fish being one of them.

Some years later, Felicia came into my married life to live with us for more than 10 years. She was a sweet, scared pup that my husband and I adopted from Animal Friends for our daughters, Cyndy and Jennifer.

Felicia died years after the marriage died, but she brought happiness into every day that she was with us.

A few years later came a starved, dazed terrier found wandering in a nearby park. She became Farrah, as in Fawcett, because of her thick, wavy fur.

I was then living with a man who loved Farrah as much as I did. When we dissolved our relationship, we arranged for dual custody. Two wonderful weeks with me; two crappy weeks with him. It worked well until Farrah developed an untreatable tumor and was euthanized shortly after.

A year later The Duke entered my life. I discovered him while producing a TV feature for a Pittsburgh station. Just a heartbeat away from starvation, he was tied in a dirt yard with a short rope nearly embedded in his neck. He was trying to dig in rock-hard soil, looking for anything that resembled sustenance.

The owners’ house appeared empty; no one answered the door. A stroke of luck for us and for the dog. The cameraman carried the living skeleton to the car. We rejoiced in our successful dog-napping as we headed for the Animal Friends Shelter where the dog would be treated.

His patchwork of skin and hair along with bones outlined through his flesh didn’t put him in the spotlight for adoption. But to me, he was a most beautiful soul.

And so The Duke became mine.

We had a fun-filled life together, joined by Leo, a lionized kitten rescued from the streets, until 1996 when I left Pittsburgh to begin my Peace Corps training in Nicaragua.

Leo went to live with one of my daughters where he became the spoiled king that he was meant to be. Duke went to Tampa, Florida, to live with a friend. The plan was that I would be back in two years to bring him home to Pittsburgh again.

But both Duke and Leo passed away before we got that far with our plan.

News from home of their passing was difficult to deal with. I should have been there for them. But in looking back through my 15 years here in Nicaragua, I can fashion my own mental memorial to both of them. Their ashes are at rest in small shiny urns on my bookshelves in Pittsburgh, PA, where they once lounged and drifted off to dream.

In 1996, when I set foot on Nicaraguan soil, veterinary care was sketchy at best. The few vets here made their living by selling animal feed, machetes, and general meds for parasites or fleas. If they treated animals, they were more than likely pigs or cows.

My initial experiences with Granada veterinarians are definitely memorable. New to my Peace Corps community of Granada , I spent a fair amount of time cruising the streets alone, getting acquainted with my new hometown.

One day while walking on a quiet side street I spotted a puppy near a gutter. I thought it was dead, until its eyes blinked. I looked around for someone, anyone, to give some direction. But the puppy and I were alone.

I moved the little body closer to the curb, away from the danger of passing cars and bikes, should one even pass by. Then I took off to look for a veterinarian.

I found a clinic with a handmade sign. I explained the situation to the vet: The puppy is seriously injured. It can’t stand up. Please come with me and help it!

He asked where the puppy was. He would pick up the puppy in the morning to put it on the garbage pile for pick-up the next day.

“No!” Now the tears were welling. “Please go with me to help the puppy. Now!” But he insisted on his garbage pile method. “That’s the way we do things here,” he said without much pity for the puppy or for me. It appeared to be his final offer.

I left, holding back tears as well as information about the puppy’s location.

I searched again for another veterinarian and finally found one in his clinic, selling chicken feed to a farmer.

We drove in his battered truck and found the puppy still breathing but barely. The vet assessed the situation without even touching the little guy. As I had expected, euthanasia was inevitable.

The vet whistled while he prepared the syringe. His casual manner seemed more suited for someone waiting for his turn in the men’s room.

Finally he administered the injections, continuing to whistle while we watched the puppy take its last breath on earth. I was numb. That I remember.

The vet ceremoniously removed his exam gloves and threw them into the gutter near the puppy’s body. His attitude spoke for him: My job here is done. I won the match. I am the champ

I asked how much I owed him.

“Three hundred cordobas,” he said. Nearly $15 American. A lot of money for a Peace Corps volunteer who lives on $240 a month. It didn’t matter. I had the cash and the puppy was no longer frightened or in pain. It wasn’t going to get better than that.

Feeling a kind of peace, I released the rest of my tears without any regard for my one-man audience. But the message of my emotional pain wasn’t connecting with the good doc. He was still more business than veterinarian.

“Okay. Okay. TWO hundred cordobas.”

Unbelievable. He really thought I was crying over the price of his service. The pity that he denied the puppy was given to me. I gave him his reduced payment, and he counted it carefully. Then I watched him drive away.

He left me with an empty syringe and needle thrown in the gutter and the lifeless body of a puppy.

THE WEEK THAT TONY WAS MINE

When I was about six years old, when owning a dog was way better than owning a bike or a new baby brother, one almost became a part of our family when we took a lost dog into our home.

I heard my parents talking about finding his owner. That didn’t matter to me. As far as I was concerned, I was his owner now. He was in our house, he licked my face and allowed me to lead him around the living room with a belt around his neck. For all intent and purposes, he was mine.

I have no recollection why I named him Tony. But thinking back, it was a good fit. I do recall that my parents would jump for a ringing telephone, and only now do I realize they were hoping that Tony’s owners had read their “Lost and Found” notice they had placed in the paper about this dog living in our house. For some reason, they didn’t seem to catch on that I had designated him to belong to me. Forever.

Tony the dream dog sat when I told him to sit, perking up his ears and waiting for my next command. He would bounce across the floor to me when I called him.

We were inseparable….until a week later when a knock on our front door ended a perfect dog-child relationship.

A young couple stood there on our porch, peering around my father and into our living room. Tony’s owners had come for him. It was a shocking surprise to me, but not to my parents. I was too young to realize there had been some collusion that brought these people here.

My father saw the couple’s “lost dog” ad in the evening paper and realized it could be the answer to his prayers.

When he opened the door with Tony at his side, the man and woman both clapped their hands and yelled, “Ranger!” My Tony leaped up and at them, barking frantically, then circled around as though doing a Greek wedding dance.

No, I thought, this can’t be. “Tony!” I yelled. “Tony! Tony!” I bent my knees and slapped my thighs, our signal for him to come to me. “Come here, Tony!” COME HERE!” By now I was screaming frantically. I’m not sure how I could not be noticed, but no one seemed to mind my hysteria. In fact, I was totally ignored, even by my beloved Tony.

The pretty woman knelt down and Tony licked her face as he did mine just an hour before. His tail was whirling while he yelped in a dog’s soprano voice. His eyes never left the pretty woman before him.

I no longer existed and he was no longer Tony. And I knew in my heart he definitely was no longer mine.

Then I watched my Tony being led away on a leash by two strangers who could never love him as much as I did. I knew he loved me too, even though he never looked back.

ROBERTO JOSE TENORIO – PART I

May 5, 2002

Thursday can’t come too soon.
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Roberto Jose, his mother Berna and I leave for his last beacon of hope. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. U.S.A.!

For nearly 4 months, Roberto Jose has carried a baseball-sized tumor in his forehead, the audacious evidence of nasal pharyngeal cancer that has slowly inched its way to his eyes and his throat.

Until a few days ago, we were huddling in limbo with no guarantee that Roberto Jose would even make the grade at the U.S. Embassy for a visa to enter the U.S.   At 3 that afternoon, we bathed in the sweat of suspense while an arrogant embassy worker strutted his power to deny Roberto’s passage into the U.S.

I pleaded Roberto Jose’s case like a defense attorney fighting to keep my client from a death penalty.  In a way, that’s exactly what I was doing. I described the questionable chemo treatments in Managua where an unqualified physician administered an intravenous solution at nearly double the strength required.

I explained, quite eloquently I thought, that there were no other alternatives to save this boy’s life in Nicaragua. But a world-class hospital in the U.S was offering to accept him as a charity patient.

While I countered each reason of the embassy drone’s denial, more of Roberto’s strength drained out of him until he could no longer stand upright. He bent over to lay his head on the counter of the Embassy worker’s cage, his eyelids fluttering, wanting to close forever.

“Please look at this boy, sir.” I pleaded. “He’s dying before our eyes!” By now my own eyes were brimming with hot tears.

I hope that I was only imagining the man’s smirk when he said with unbelievable calm, “Yes, I can see that.”  Then perhaps realizing his own stupidity, he casually turned his name card toward his chest  and left us to stand alone at the caged window.

Even as a taxpayer myself, I failed to see the problem But then, I’m far from being a hospital administrator. As it is, Mayo Clinic has taken Roberto Jose as a charity patient. No payment for his treatment is expected. We’re thankful for that.  Now, Mr. Embassy Worker,  just let us go!

I’m not certain what opened the man’s heart to finally allow us at least the one chance to save Roberto Jose’s life. But fifteen minutes before closing time at the Embassy, we were told to return the next day to pick up two visas.

We were out the door before any change of heart could stop us.

It has been a difficult past two weeks for Roberto.

The chemotherapy that he received from a Nicaraguan oncologist was, according to a Mayo Clinic physician who read his medical records, way off base. He was receiving much more dosage than warranted. Radiation burned his throat so that eating was painful. He was losing weight, and on a tall, lanky body, it was showing up as a walking cadaver.

Just two weeks ago, he still had a hint of the playful humor that is part of being a 17 year old. He played chess with friends. Teased his younger sister a little, but warned her strongly about hanging out with boys. He hugged his mother a lot.

Today he is weak, has little appetite, and has lost all interest in life. He has given up his fight.

There are those of us high-fiving one another because Roberto Jose has a chance to live. We’re jubilant!  But it doesn’t seem the same to Roberto who will leave his own home, his father and younger sister to go a strange land at this stage of his battle.

“Wait until he’s in the U.S.,” we say to each other. “When he meets his host family, he’ll feel so much better.” We were talking ourselves into what we wanted for him.

Now we know…much too late…what Robert Jose wanted. He wanted to die in his own home.

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May 7, 2002

The plane flight itself took a toll on RJ. It was early May, but he was from sweltering Nicaragua and he was cold when we arrived in Minneapolis, even in a ski jacket and a knit cap.

We wheeled him down the ramp to meet the smiling Sue and David Dripp who would host the three of us for what would be a hellish two months. But Roberto couldn’t care about propriety. He was dying, and he knew it.

Still, I had hope, a lot of it. Mayo Clinic had saved Jesus Mayorga. Cleveland Clinic had repaired Farida. This would work. We were in the right place. Yes, I had hope.

I knew there was nowhere else to go except where we were right now.

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May 9, 2002

Roberto Jose checked in to Mayo Clinic. This was it. The end of the Hope Line. Either he would find his way out of his living Hell here or it was over.

Santiago and Miki — A Tale of Unconditional Love

I never quite divested myself of the “Lassie, Come Home” or “Rin Tin TIn” era. Somewhere in my brain’s archives, kids and dogs still resonate as a major part of a perfect world.

A two-year old boy named Santiago brought it all back to me the other day. He visited our Casa Lupita Animal Clinic with his mother, Suzanne Pryor, who was in search of a dog-pal that could grow up with her son.

Suzanne caught wind of a dog named Miki being sheltered at Casa Lupita. She was touched by the dog’s history of harsh abuse and neglect in San Juan del Sur, a beach town south of Granada.

Rejane Rojas, a San Juan del Sur resident, first brought Miki to us a few months ago. She found the dog laying on a dirt road. It was the large vaginal tumor that shocked her, and she realized that here was yet another victim of an easily-spread canine cancer.

As she moved closer, she saw an even more complicated problem: an inflamed burn on its back. This, she later learned, was the result of boiling water thrown on the dog. Add to this an infected eye, later removed because of irreparable damage.

“Between the infected eye, her burns and her tumor, this poor dog must have been in constant excruciating pain,” says Rejane. The tumor was removed at Casa Lupita followed by a chemotherapy schedule.

In spite of Miki’s unrelenting agony, Rejane remembers her as having “one of the sweetest dispositions that I have ever seen in a dog, even though humans had been very cruel to her.”

The continued chemo treatment by the Casa Lupita vet team along with eye surgery and treatment for back burns turned her around toward good health and back to San Juan del Sur and her original owners — until Rejane noticed the dog licking a large wound on her leg.

“Getting closer to her, I could see that her front leg had been skinned to the bone. I found out that someone had cut her with a machete,” explained Rejane. “The wound was at least 3 days old and other than washing it, nothing else was done for it.”

Rejane returned Miki immediately to Casa Lupita where the vets decided to keep her for ongoing care.

Unfortunately the only option to treat the shattered leg was amputation. Miki would stay at Casa Lupita until she had recuperated, but her future wasn’t considered a bright one. Three-legged one-eyed dogs were not usually considered adoption material.

But Miki never winced, whined, or refused our attention. It took her little time to navigate on three legs, and a missing eye certainly didn’t deter her either.

It was the non-stop tail wagging that impressed all of us. Anything was a reason for that appendage to whip back and forth. Just saying her name….entering the room…or even saying goodbye. The tail moved. Always,

As a mother, Suzanne could imagine the tremendous value for both her son and this dog growing up together. This, she thought, was a fur-covered lesson in life for her little boy.

A meeting was arranged at Casa Lupita.

Suzanne shows Santiago how to gently pet Miki

As soon as Santiago entered the clinic and caught sight of his future playmate, he slid on his knees to her side. Suzanne helped him to pet Miki gently on her head. Love at first sight, and more. Respect, joy, trust, camaraderie. It was all there.

Suzanne casually mentioned that their new friend had only three legs. And then the math test began. Santiago counted the legs…..one….two…..three. He was delighted. Three legs seemed more than enough to him. Besides, he wasn’t sure he could count higher than that.

Then he reached behind him for the hand of their housekeeper, Julieta, and guided it to Miki’s head. His hand on hers, he showed her how to pet gently, very gently. The tail picked up momentum and whacked the floor.

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I backed away to take some photos, hoping to capture just a small piece of the dauntless spirit of a dog minus a leg and an eye — and the unconditional love of a little boy who could care less what his new friend doesn’t have.

Now they have each other, and nothing is more important than that.

Ritmo en los Barrios

This may be the sweetest 10 minutes of your day.

 

Please view this short video of one of our Building New Hope projects “Ritmo en los Barrios.”  This was produced, shot and edited by a group of four U.S. students who elected to come to Granada to do a video project. We are honored that they chose our music program as its focus. (They also produced a short video about Casa de Esperanza as well ——and it too is outstanding!)

The piano was a gift from our generous friends  of  Connecticut Quest for Peace, shipped here via a truck several years ago. Could it have been put to better use?  Your comments would be appreciated.

Thanks, everyone, for your never-ending interest in the work of Building New Hope here in Nicaragua.

Donna

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.

THE NEXT MORNING…

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.

“Five!”

“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.

Chepe’s Story

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Recently my good friend Chepe (Jose) Cuadra returned to his nest, Granada, Nicaragua.  A talented artist, Chepe left us some years ago to live in St. Albans, Vermont, with his wife, Olga, and their two sons.   After teaching there at Johnson State College, Chepe is now writing his thesis as he works toward his Masters in Fine Arts degree.  He continues to paint, but when he came to visit us in Granada, he arrived without canvas or brush.

Instead he brought his IPAD2 and a request to work with our young students at Escuelita Yo Puedo.

The rest of this blog post is Chepe’s story.

“I have been thinking of how to put into words my iPad 2 experience with the kids at Escuelita Yo Puedo .  I was exposing them to this high-end U.S.A  first- world technology, yet I  was the one exposed to a  great living experience through working with them . It  was an EXTRAORDINARY experience for me!”

“These kids are deprived of so many things .  Through my North American eyes:  No technology, no fast food, no new chemicals in their nutrition, no new gadgets , no money  at all.  So many are from broken families  with a missing parent,  they have very little everyday food….just the basic rice, beans, plantains, tortillas, no new clothes or toys.

What they  ARE exposed to is a lack of everything!

The minute the children saw me they gave me a nick-name: Senor King Kong Gigante! , They were so excited that I brought them some attention and some of my time, and they were willing to work with me and my IPAD2.”

“I was expecting them to see this as a great FUTURISTIC experience,  But no —- I was just someone from the outside their realm who came to them with some of his time, his attention and no “halarlas de las mechas” (dragging them by their hair)!”

“Working with these beautiful children was a lesson of love and compassion for me.  With such great potential they were like very pliable Play Dough ready to go in any direction! ”

“Thanks to all who made this wonderful experience possible for me.”

Chepe Cuadra
Saint Albans, VT

Portia Makes Headline News!

Before She Became Portia

With a name like Portia, you almost have to count on going places. But this Portia had much more to catapult her into the public eye. In fact, one of HER eyes was history.  The “dead eye” was removed at our Clinica Casa Lupita after she was brought in from the streets of Granada….this shambles of a mutt that was so much closer to death than alive.

Finn Dowling, our ace vet tech, rescued her when she spotted her scavenging through garbage in the city’s busy bus station. One more day on the streets could have been the last one for this stray.  Finn brought her to our clinic where she was treated not only for her badly infected eye but also for a sorry case of mange.

But this dog’s story took an upward swing.  With Finn’s persistence, ingenuity, and coordination with other ex pats here in Nicaragua, Portia was finally well enough to make a public appearance. When she was finally on the adoption list,  a woman in Loveland, Colorado, was first in line for the brand new Portia. Off she went to the U.S. and settled happily in her new digs.

Yet Finn still felt that this special dog deserved her five minutes of fame.

She contacted local newspapers in Portia’s new hometown, and even after two years passed since her rescue , our Cinderella dog was finally placed in the spotlight that she so well deserves.  We’re elated and yes, so proud of her!

Extra! Extra!    Click here to Read All About It!

Donna and Friend

Donna Tabor blogs about life in Nicaragua.