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October 18, 2013 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
By: Kelly Kener Quinn
In October 2012, the Pujols Family Foundation Advisory Board began discussion about the upcoming Medical Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic. During the previous year, our team met a young boy whom they nicknamed “The Blueberry” due to the bluish color of his dark complexion. Concerned with the boy’s complexion, our pediatricians began a series of medical tests which led them to determine he was living with a condition know as Complex Cyanotic Congenital Heart Disease. In short, his heart was pumping blood in the wrong direction which meant he was constantly on the verge of cardiac arrest. Without surgery to correct this serious condition, he would certainly face death in the near future.
At our meeting we began exploring options on how we could use our resources in St. Louis and the Dominican to provide the life-saving surgery this young boy needed. Our goal was to have him in St. Louis by December 1st, 2012, which left very little time to implement a plan and no room for errors.
It is truly remarkable how pieces of this puzzle effortlessly fell into place. An old friend of mine was now serving a role at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic. I reached out to him for guidance on how to approach the situation, as the boy and his mother needed proper documentation to come to the U.S. for treatment. Our partnership with Compassion International was vital in facilitating the logistics in the Dominican Republic between the U.S. & Dominican governments. Within two months of the birth of our plans, all of the logistics and details were ironed out. On Saturday, December 1st, 2012, we were honored to welcome Jorgeli Santana and his mother, Heidy, to the United States and host them as special guests for our 8th Annual O’ Night Divine Christmas Celebration.
As the month of December progressed, an amazing team of medical professionals from Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital partnered with the extraordinary teams at the World Pediatric Project, Ronald McDonald House West County, the JFK Center at Mercy Medical, Dr. Jan Mueller, pediatric dentist Dr. Sarah Smith, and many other volunteers to guide Jorgeli on the road to recovery.
Jorgeli arrived in the U.S. as a small seven-year-old boy. Upon meeting him, I could not help but notice how much his size resembled that of my four-year-old niece. His activity level was minimal at best. As a result of his heart condition and the limited amount of oxygen reaching his lungs, Jorgeli had to be carried most places. His labored breathing was impossible to ignore as he performed simple tasks like walking from one end of a room to the other. Pair all of these struggles with a language barrier and we knew this amazing adventure was going to challenge us all like never before.
Soon after their arrival in the U.S., I learned that Jorgeli’s mom, Heidy, was almost 8 months pregnant. Not anticipating a long stay or complications, our team did not see any reason for her not to travel as we projected they would return to the Dominican Republic in early January. Unfortunately that was not so. After visits to the pediatric dentist and the cardiologist, it was determined that Jorgeli needed to have a few teeth extracted to eliminate any infection in his body prior to surgery. It was also decided he would need to have a series of surgeries to treat his condition instead of one major surgery, and the first would require a stint to be put in his heart.
The day of the surgery was a very cold, early January morning. Our team met Jorgeli and Heidy at the hospital before the sun rose to admit him as a patient. A dear friend from the Dominican, Bernard Okeke, flew in to be with Jorgeli & Heidy showing them support from their village at home.
Once admitted, tests were run, pre-surgery medications were given and the anesthesiologist arrived which signaled it was time for Jorgeli to head into surgery and for us to proceed to the waiting room. We sat for hours while the surgery was in progress. Many visitors came to show their support throughout the day and we shared joyful stories with each other to calm our nerves and appreciate the miracle taking place. We prayed for the boy’s health, for the doctors to have steady hands and calm minds, and for God to guide us through this fragile time. It felt like an eternity before the nurse came out to the waiting room to give us the news. The surgery was successful.
Over the next several months, Jorgeli regained his strength. He began to run—something that was very new to him—and the little “blueberry” had more energy than any of us knew what to do with.
During this time, I had the opportunity to relearn some Spanish from my high school years and began to communicate with Heidy about her fears, needs and the successes they were experiencing with Jorgeli. I also began accompanying her to weekly OB/GYN check-ups at the JFK Center. This was a beautiful, life-altering experience. We shared many quiet moments while she had ultrasounds and stress tests. The first time I heard the baby’s heartbeat I almost cried tears of joy, as I knew this baby was special. Our bond strengthened each week as we developed a labor and delivery plan with the doctors & social services, and as we established a plan of care for Jorgeli on delivery day.
On February 2nd, 2013 Jorgeli became a big brother to a new baby sister, Heily. He was thrilled to welcome this sweet baby girl to his family with his mom. Over the next two and a half months, there were many doctors’ visits for all of the Santana family members. Each day Jorgeli’s heart grew stronger, his new sister grew bigger and Mom grew anxious to return home to join the rest of the family.
On Thursday, March 14th, 2013 that bittersweet day finally arrived. All of Jorgeli’s follow-up appointments confirmed he was healthy enough to return home, and his little sister had grown strong enough to make the trip home as well. Ryan Morales, of Compassion International, arrived in St. Louis from Santo Domingo on Tuesday, March 12th to assist the Santana’s on their journey home. We pulled up to the St. Louis airport with the moon still shining brightly in the early morning sky. It was here we said our farewells and knew we would see each other again.
We are incredibly grateful for all of the amazing support the Pujols Family Foundation was blessed with throughout the Santana’s stay and we will forever be humbled by this experience.
Since the Sanatana’s return to the Dominican Republic, we have received several positive reports on the incredible improvement of Jorgeli’s condition. He will need to return to the U.S. for additional surgeries to complete his treatment, and when that time comes we will be ready to greet our old friends and continue moving forward together on this journey towards health and happiness.