LA PAZ, Bolivia—Tears ran down three-year-old Shaynna’s cheeks as she alternated between laughing and sobbing in her daddy’s arms. He blinked away tears and his voice broke as he said “Felice! Felice!” Pure happiness—that’s what it felt like to see Shaynna’s cheeks rosy instead of blue.
I left Poway a couple weeks ago on a Monday night and met Shaynna and five-year-old Matias in the Caribbean town where the nonprofit Children’s Heart Project arranged for them to have life-saving surgery. Heart defects kept their bodies weak and constantly craving oxygen, but surgery was successful for each and they were cleared to fly home to Bolivia. Over 30 hours, I transported the kids, their mothers, and a translator back to their native La Paz, Bolivia, in the Andes Mountains.
Shaynna’s mom had an emergency c-section when she gave birth. Four days later, she still wasn’t able to see her baby daughter. So strong was her need to see her that she insisted in leaving her bed and fainted in the process. That’s when doctors took her to be ICU, where Shaynna was on oxygen. She would need to be on oxygen almost constantly until her heart was repaired, doctors said. Neomi didn’t have the money, a fact the staff seemed to hold against her.
“Why don’t you take out a loan? She will die without this surgery,” people told her continually.
But she couldn’t afford it. Then the Children’s Heart project called and invited them to a free screening, and Shaynna was soon approved to go to Grand Cayman for surgery. But an infection forced them to waive off. To Neomi, it seemed like maybe they’d lost their only chance for Shaynna’s survival. She had to be on oxygen constantly and now she’d missed her long-awaited opportunity for surgery. It was a difficult time for her.
But she recovered and was approved to go early this year. The surgery was a success, and Shaynna gained 10 kilos in the five weeks she spent in the Caymans!
When Matias became sick at three, Lumisen took him to the doctor. They asked if she knew he had a heart problem—it was too big and had a hole that wouldn’t close on its own.
She didn’t have the $12,000 the surgery would cost, so she moved to Argentina to get on the list for a free surgery. The wait for a Bolivian child was 4-5 years; Argentine kids got preference. On a visit to family back in Bolivia she heard about a clinic that could help subsidize the surgery and she started saving money toward that goal.
“We never stopped having faith and praying to God,” Lumisen said.
One day, she got a call from the Children’s Heart Project inviting her to a heart defect screening clinic. Matias seemed like a good candidate and was scheduled for surgery in the Caymans last summer, but complications arose—his heart was inoperable as long as a fist-sized cyst in his lung was in place. Removing it was extremely risky, especially in conjunction with a heart procedure. The surgery was postponed. Then they got the good news—the hospital found a surgeon who could operate on the cyst, so Matias and his mom traveled to the Caymans at the same time as Shaynna. A doctor removed the massive ball of tissue—which was riddled with worms that thankfully had not spread to any of his other organs—and just five days later had surgery on his heart.
On the journey home he sometimes cried from pain from the 8-inch incision across his back. But mostly he was running around, chasing Shaynna, acting like another rowdy five-year-old I know and love. Lumisen marveled, “On the flight here, they were just laying down and sleeping!”
When asked his life post-surgery will be different in her town (a 10-hour bus ride outside La Paz), Lumisan said, “I think now I will be able to do many things. Before I was always worried. Now I am happy, so happy. Happy happy!”