(Story by Hannah Reed and Photography by Ellie Falcao)
I’m sitting outside the hospital on a curb close to the entrance with one of our team’s translators, Marco, and his wife Daniella. The sky is sunny and the air is humid, yet there is a cool breeze under the shade of the tree above us. Marco’s English is impeccable- so really, the story that follows will be in his words.
“Our story begins when my wife went into premature labor at 28 weeks pregnant. I remember that phone call from her as if it were yesterday. She was very panicked, and I also felt frightened, but I reminded her that everything was going to be ok. We went to a local government hospital since we knew that our baby would have to live in an incubator for a period of time, and it would be much cheaper than a private hospital. The doctors warned us that because she was so premature, right when she was born she wouldn’t be able to cry or move much. While I was in the waiting room as Daniella gave birth I couldn’t stop crying—I was so scared. Out of nowhere, an old woman came and touched my shoulder and told me “everything is going to be fine, God hears your prayers.” Contrary to what the doctors told us, the moment our beautiful little baby Lya breathed her first breath, she screamed and cried loudly. This was our first sign of hope! Unfortunately, a few months later we found out that Lya was born with two holes in her heart. Luckily we have a family friend who is a heart specialist who could examine her. He told us wanted to wait to operate on her—he believed that God was going to heal her heart because of the miraculous way she was born; thankfully, he was right! When she was 2 years old we had her heart examined and the holes had completed closed up on their own. It was truly a miracle!
“We started noticing signs that something wasn’t right with Lya at about the age of 2 ½ when she first started talking. She was having trouble pronouncing words and speaking clearly, and seemed to have a form of facial paralysis where she could only smile on one side of her face. We took her to a good doctor at a private hospital in San Salvador, and he said that unless she had a special surgery in her throat, she would never be able to speak clearly. However, the type of surgery she needed was so rare that having it done in El Salvador would be impossible. At that point our only option would have been flying to the states and having surgery there. Even if we would have acquired enough money to pay for plane tickets and a doctor’s consultation, there is no way we could afford to pay for the surgery. I don’t know if you realize that most of the families with children needing surgery this week have almost nothing. They’ve had to sell their chickens- which are a huge food source for their families- in order to even afford the cost of bus tickets, gas and food to get to the hospital. These parents will do anything to get help for their children—the opportunity to even be looked at by a doctor means everything to them.”
“Anyhow, back to my story. One Friday afternoon, when Lya was three years old, a friend of mine from the Rotary Club told me that in two days a surgeon from America would be coming to evaluate patients for surgery—He was referring to Dr. Harshbarger. He looked in Lya’s throat but told us that she was still too young for an operation and to come back in one year. Instead of just going home, I volunteered to help translate for them since I noticed they needed help with communicating to the patients. The next year we came back and Dr. Harshbarger was able to examine her a bit closer, but realized that he needed a special scope to see deeper down her throat to confirm the diagnosis. I called up a doctor that I know as he was having Sunday lunch with his family, but told me that if I came at 2pm he could meet me there and we could use his scope. The only reason I’m getting into this much detail is because it impacted me so much that Dr. Harshbarger would drop whatever he was doing and hop in a car to go to a clinic and examine my daughter. He noticed that we would need a small operation to remove adenoids in her throat so that they could see it clearly. Thankfully, we were able to afford to pay for this surgery at a local hospital. Most of the families that are here don’t even have thirty dollars to pay for even a doctor’s consultation. That being said, we had to wait another year for the operation.”
“The older my daughter became, the more frustrated she was that people could not understand her. When she would be talking with people outside of our family, she’d say a few sentences and they would keep repeating “what?” She would repeat herself until they would pretend to understand. She could tell they were faking it and say, “Okay then, repeat what I just said.” You could just see the frustration in her eyes every day, even though she showed no signs of irregularity on her face. Lya also had trouble eating and drinking; if she ate or drank too quickly, it would come up through her nose.”
“June finally came around and with it came the Austin Smiles team- our daughter was put on the schedule for surgery. We wanted her to be excited and not scared about the surgery, so we told Lya that she was going to have a magical surgery that would be done by a magical doctor, and after it was completed she was going to have a magical voice. The days leading up to surgery Dr. Harshbarger would come by and say hello to her when he passed by, so that she would be relaxed around him. Her new friends and Austin Smiles volunteers Anton Stoebner, Elisa Baron and Lya Macaya played with her in the room the day of surgery to keep her amused.”
“Surgery time came and Lya was sent to the operating room. After a few minutes one of the doctors came out and told us that they realized the surgery was even more complex than they originally thought and it was going to be a bit different than planned. I told him “tell Dr. Harshbarger to do whatever needs to do—we trust him.” Three hours passed and she was still in surgery. I was so nervous and anxious that Dr. Sentz, an Austin Smiles dentist, brought me with him into an OR room for a procedure to hold his patient’s head while he pulled a few teeth out—yes, that definitely distracted me!”
“Within one month after surgery Lya was talking perfectly clear! She had no more problems with her speech or pronunciation and everyone could understand her. Lya is thriving and is at the top of her class in school. She was even given the honor of reading a poem in front of the entire school—an honor that would not have been possible prior to her operation.”
“I would like you to know that because of these surgeries, these children are able to become a part of society in new way—they can now excel in every area of life. Surgery is not only life changing for the child; it really impacts the entire family. For example, when Lya was having trouble speaking, her little brother started picking up on her speaking habits. Now that she can speak clearly, he can speak perfectly as well.”
“I would like all of the volunteers to know how incredible it is seeing you giving one hundred percent, without getting anything in return. For those of you reading that have never given your time or money for this cause, I want you to know that even your ten dollars can go a long way to give a child an opportunity for surgery. So, thank you. Thank you for giving my daughter confidence, thank you for giving her a brighter future, and thank you for giving her a voice. We are eternally grateful. ”