In November 2003, Nora Leon and Nelson Mejia placed their 17 month old daughter into my arms at the airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. With tears streaming down their faces, they said “goodbye” to Stefany, who was heading to the U.S. for medical treatment. This was Stefany’s one hope for a brighter future, and they relied on their strong faith and trust in us, who they had only met a few times in the previous year. As a parent, I cannot imagine the desperation and fear that they felt, and the love it took in letting her go.
We had met Stefany and her family several months before when we were holding a medical clinic in one of the homes in Flores, Honduras. Stefany was born with bilateral clubfeet and had no access to treatment. By the time we met, she was now standing on the outsides of her feet, with her toes pointing inward. Her future was very bleak, having a severe physical impairment and trying to survive in a third world country. Often the disabled are considered castoffs from society.
Fortunately, Stefany had been accepted to Shriners Hospital for Children, in Springfield, MA. We’ll never forget the hospital asking for the parents’ signatures prior to her operation, and we hoped they truly understood what they were signing and didn’t think we were taking their daughter away. Stefany became part of our family for the next five months while we took weekly trips to the hospital for new casts. After serial castings, she was ready for surgery, followed by months in special shoes attached to a bar that kept her feet rotated outward.
It was all a grand success and then it was time to take Stefany back home and reunite her with her family. This was harder than expected because Stefany had been calling me “Mama” and every time I went to leave, her arms would be stretched out to me as she screamed for me to return. I just had to walk away, shielding my own tears from her. We’ve had a special bond ever since, and saying “goodbye” was difficult for years.
Last June, we were in Honduras and I was able to attend Stefany’s baby shower and we were there for the birth of her son, Gael. It was a very bittersweet day because Stefany was thrilled to become a mother but saddened to see Gael had a clubfoot himself. We tried our best to reassure Stefany that we would find treatment for Gael, and he would one day run and play soccer just like all the other children.
Over the past 20 years, we have built a trustworthy support system within the country. We turned to our good friend Enrique Tome M.D. for a referral to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. Gael was seen within two weeks of his birth and like his mom, went through months of castings. Last month, Ruben Villeda M.D. and his team operated on Gael. As Stefany anxiously waited through the long hours of surgery, her mom was by her side, and she was comforted knowing her son would soon be in her arms instead of 3,600 miles apart, as her mom had experienced.