They hugged and cried together in the lobby of Covenant Women's and Children's Hospital. Few would know that these two women didn't even know each other until fate brought them to Lubbock with the same prayer…thanks in part to the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which provided the funds.
It is a complicated story that would end with a team of 17 doctors, nurses and technicians lining up to cheer the first successful surgery. However, there is still one more cross to bear…
The story begins a few days earlier with 2 little girls from Honduras taking their Barbie dolls to see a doctor. Through an interpreter, Lilian Torres explains her 7 yr old daughter, Cristhel, has a heart that is beating too fast. Both girls have an Atrial Septal Defect, or a hole in the heart.
However, it's Araceli Herrera's daughter, Belen, who appears to be much more serious. Dr. Andrew Robinson, a cardiologist, explains, "Because the heart is so enlarged, it's difficult to profile and will have to be evaluated further," explains." So, while Belyn sleeps, and her mother worries, an echo-cardiogram paints the first picture of a very sick little girl.
Luckily, Cristhel's surgery appears more routine. This means for the first time in Lubbock, one or both children will receive a life-saving gift through a program called Samaritan's Purse. "It really is one of the most rewarding areas we find in medicine," says Dr. Richard Ranne, a Pediatric Surgeon at Covenant. He explains that group finds uninsured children with heart defects from across the globe to be fixed for free in the states. His office wall is covered with "thank you pictures" of 37 children whose hearts were repaired by Dr. Ranne before he came to Lubbock. He points to several of them and says, "You see the different age groups and then they grow up."
This faith based program is a good fit for Covenant. Doctors there have already performed open heart surgery about 600 times in the past 10 years, including about 100 surgeries to close a hole in a child's heart.
Now, it's Cristhel's turn. Dr. Jim Harrell, a heart surgeon at Covenant, gently pats Cristhel's hand, and tells her that she'll be going to sleep in a few minutes as she is rolled into surgery. Dr. Harrell adds, "We actually use a little of the heart sack lining as the patch material to close that hole."
It is supposed to be a routine procedure for Cristhel, but about an hour into the surgery, Dr. Harrell points to a complication. "Three veins" he says,
Indicating they are sending blood to the wrong side of the heart.
It is an eery moment when Cristhel's heart is carefully stopped and the heart lung machine takes over. Then, in a space the size of a quarter, the patch is stitched over the hole to redirect the blood flow of those three veins.
In a couple of hours, Lilian learns the surgery was a success, and her host family and others pray for this blessing as Crystal goes into recovery.
That is what brings us to that joyful moment- with the two women hugging.
As I mentioned, they still have one more cross to bear: It's Belyn's turn to go into surgery.
"We'll take good care of her," a nurse says as he rolls Belen into the operating room. Belyn has been considered the sickest of the two - with an enlarged heart. It is at least to her advantage that she is just 4 years old, since the damage gets worse with age.
In the O.R., you can hear Dr. Ranne's soft voice over all the machines. He says it's time to stop the heart so it can be opened. Again, the heart monitor gets a flat line indicating no activity in the heart. That means the heart lung machine is doing all the work for the heart.
But in this surgery, too, there are surprises. As Dr. Ranne gets a close look at Belen's heart, he says "It's multiple holes within a heart. That's why she was having so much problem at this early age." Then, Dr. Ranne shapes and stitches the patch to cover the hole. Almost immediately, Belen's over-sized heart begins to get smaller. Dr. Ranne says that within 6 months, it should look and act like a normal heart for a child her age.
That is unbelievable news to a mother who is waiting in another room to hear what these American doctors have done. Lilian breaks down and sobs as Dr. Ranne comforts her with a smile and some tears of his own.
Some things…like tears of joy… mean the same in any language.
So do birthday hugs. A few days after the surgery, Cristhel turned 7 years old and her host family threw her a wonderful party with balloons and best wishes to both little girls from Honduras.
But more than a happy birthday, the greatest gift to both these girls is the chance now to celebrate a long life of many birthdays.
And even after they return to Honduras, their story will long be remembered on the wall of Dr. Ranne's "thank you" pictures.
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