It is Monday morning, February 17, and 3-year-old Genesis Fuentes is visiting the office of The Newtown Bee. Unlike most toddlers who would be racing to and fro, jabbering, or excitedly grabbing at the numerous knick-knacks within reach, Genesis sits quietly in the lap of her 22-year-old cousin, Melanie Lopez, brown eyes set in a thin face, curiously gazing about the room and smiling shyly. It has been 18 days since Genesis, from Belize City, Belize, received the Gift of Life — open heart surgery funded by a special program of Rotary Club International, and sponsored locally by the Newtown Rotary Club.
Seated with them are Monica Toll and her husband, Mike, a Newtown Rotarian, as well as Newtown Rotarian Pat Caruso.
“If everyone would do one little good deed a day, the world would be a better place,” declared Ms Toll, as she gently squeezed Genesis’s tiny hand. The good deed undertaken by Ms Toll and her husband this past month, however, is somewhat larger than “one little good deed.” The Tolls have served as a host family to Genesis and Melanie since their arrival in the United States on January 8.
Through the Rotary International Club “Gift of Life” program, the Newtown chapter of the club made it possible for Genesis to receive surgery for a congenital heart condition, as well as other life-compromising surgeries. Without the surgery, the 3-year-old girl was given a life expectancy of only another 12 to 18 months.
“By the time Genesis got [to the US], she was only getting 50 percent of the blood she needed and of that, only 50 percent of the blood was properly oxygenated,” said Mr Toll, due to a hole in her heart and problems with the heart ventricles.
“You could see that she had blue lips and blue nails. Just going up eight or ten steps, or going between the rooms, she was out of breath,” said Ms Toll.
But two weeks after the January 30 surgery by Dr Samuel Weinstein at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., Genesis was racing through their house, said the Tolls, and had even skipped a nap the day before after a full day’s outing. “Yesterday,” Ms Toll said, “she was singing.”
Getting to that point was due to the cooperation of many people and organizations across the United States, said Mr Caruso. Newtown Rotary’s involvement in the Gift of Life actually goes back to 2008, he said, when he first heard of it through fellow Rotarians at a conference in Chicago. Since then, the Newtown Rotary has been working toward sponsoring a child through the Gift of Life.
The Gift of Life International Rotary program began in 1975, with the partnering of the Rotary Club of Kampala, Uganda, with the Rotary Club of Manhasset, N.Y. Its mission, according to a Rotary International fact sheet, is to “promote world peace by providing lifesaving open-heart surgery to needy children throughout the world.” More than 16,000 children from 70 different countries have been helped through the Rotary Gift of Life program since then, with the greatest momentum being in the past decade. Gift of Life provides surgery now for more than 1,000 children a year worldwide.
Gift of Life is working to develop self-sustaining pediatric heart programs in Uganda, El Salvador, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic that will be able to provide lifesaving surgery to 200 to 300 more children every year, once in place. The Gift of Life International network currently includes more than 70 Gift of Life programs, such as that in Newtown, 82 affiliated hospitals, and hundreds of volunteer health care professionals and tens of like-minded non-governmental organizations, according to a message from Suzanne Freaney, president, to Gift of Life International stakeholders. Additional yearly development projects are planned for other countries.
In January 2013, the Gift of Life program in Newtown was finally approved by Rotary, but it was nearly a year later before the organization was notified that there was a child local members could help.
Genesis had been identified by her pediatrician in Belize City to a team of physicians from Omaha, Neb., also Rotarians, as being in great need of surgery. The facilities and skilled surgeons Genesis needed were not available in her country. The word went out, and in December 2013, the Newtown Rotary received notice that a child would be coming to the United States for surgery in the Bronx, although no set date was given as to the child’s arrival. Gift of Life had coordinated with Montefiore Medical Center, where Dr Weinstein is a well-respected children’s cardiologist, to provide surgery. Newtown Rotary was responsible for a $6,000 donation and for hosting Genesis and her caregiver.
“It is fortunate for Genesis that there is a Gift of Life program in Belize, and that her pediatrician told her parents about it,” Mr Toll said.
Because Genesis has a twin brother, Isaac, and a younger sister, Jasmine, her parents Fidelia and Samuel Fuentes were not able to travel to the United States with Genesis. Melanie agreed to accompany the child, even though she had never been to the United States before.
“People around the world don’t have the hospital facilities we have here,” said Mr Caruso. “All families can do is pray, and wonder ‘Who’s going to answer our prayers?’ [Newtown Rotary] was blessed to have the opportunity to help,” he said.
Knowing that Genesis and Melanie were arriving from Belize, the Tolls offered to host, as they both speak Spanish and English. Ms Toll’s “mothering instinct” kicked in as soon as she met them, said Mr Toll.
Genesis was underweight, at just 22 pounds. “Knowing that when you undergo surgery, you are likely to lose more weight, I made sure she had plenty of good, healthy food in her before the surgery,” Ms Toll said. By the time Genesis arrived at Montefiore Medical Center, she had gained five pounds.
The Newtown Rotary Club was assisted by the Rotary Clubs in Belize, and Yonkers, N.Y. Rotarian Rich Sullivan was also a great help, Mr Caruso said, providing overnight accommodations for the Tolls that were closer to Montefiore Medical Center, when early morning doctor appointments were needed.
Additionally, the hospital, doctors, and staff donated their time and efforts to seeing that Genesis received the care she needed.
Melanie, who works as supervisor of the slot machines in Belize City’s only casino, has received a true New England winter welcome. She has been surprised by the snow and cold, she said, which is very much the opposite of Belize’s balmy winter weather.
Most importantly, though, Melanie said that she felt very confident that Genesis’s surgery would go as expected, upon meeting the doctors.
“She asked a lot of questions,” Ms Toll said, who acted as Melanie’s advisor and translator, when needed. “She is an amazing 22-year-old,” Ms Toll added.
Melanie was not comfortable, however, with leaving her little cousin all alone in the hospital, and has spent a great deal of her visit inside the medical center. For the two weeks following the heart surgery, she slept — or tried to sleep — on a reclining chair in the little girl’s room, always there when Genesis went to sleep and when she woke up.
Genesis received the first Gift of Life operation in the world for 2014, said Mr Caruso, as well as being the very first Gift of Life for the Newtown Rotary Club. Once her follow-up examinations are completed and the doctors are satisfied that Genesis will not need more special care, she will be returning to Belize with Melanie.
“She will be running, playing, and doing all the things she could not do at home before,” said Melanie, who has kept in touch each day with the Fuentes family. “She’s going to go swimming!” she exclaimed.
Genesis, who is bilingual, says not a word in response, but her eyes shine at the mention of playing with her siblings. She clutches her doll closely to her.
The Newtown Rotary Cub will be finished with its responsibilities to Genesis when she returns home, “so far as the monetary end of it is concerned,” Mr Caruso said. “But with something like this, you become friends and there is a personal level involved, so in that respect, I expect our connections will continue.”
“We are grateful to have met Genesis and Melanie, and to have had the chance to do this,” Mr Toll said. “And for the whole suite of people who made the surgery happen. I believe there are more good people in this world and programs like Gift of Life make it easy to do good,” he said.
“It has been a great experience,” Ms Toll agreed. “Mike and I like to help people and to make a difference in somebody’s life. Melanie said they should have a gift to thank me, but I say that that best way to thank me, is for this child to live a long life,” she said.
The visit is over and Mr Toll helps Genesis into her winter jacket, and slips wiggling fingers into knit mittens. Her smile broadens as he swings her up into his arms.
“The Newtown Rotary Club has never done something on this level before,” Mr Caruso said. “We really saved someone’s life. This is a real Gift of Life.”