They say ‘laughter is the best medicine.’
So it’s no wonder 14-year-old Silvia is doing remarkably well as she recovers from major spine surgery she had done at TMC. The Honduras native is described as “the most energetic, outgoing person you will ever meet.” She has an infectious giggle that fills the house of her host family – a house that has been her home for the past three months. Silvia suffered from a severe case of scoliosis and required a spinal fusion with a rod placement, but didn’t have access to the treatment in Honduras. Her widowed mother, who sells bread for a living, didn’t have the money or access to seek out the medical attention her daughter so desperately needed.
Healing the Children (HTC) is a nonprofit charitable organization that helps underserved children throughout the world secure urgently needed medical assistance they otherwise are unable to obtain. As part of the program, Silvia was flown to Arizona in October 2013 along with another little girl named Doris who underwent a similar surgery at a Phoenix area hospital. The girls bonded with their host family, the Shoemakers, for a few weeks before their operations.
Leah and Dave Shoemaker both work full time in addition to raising their three young children, 9-year-old Aston, 4-year-old Bryton, and 2-year-old Caelyn. As you can imagine, it was a huge adjustment for all involved. The dynamics of the house changed instantly. “When they first came into our house, it was unbelievably difficult. You want to do everything you can to make them feel welcome. But it’s amazing how quickly everyone adjusts,” said Leah.
“Silvia lives with her 1-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew in Honduras, so she was used to having little kids around, and was very helpful around the house. She was very eager to blend in with our family,” said Leah. One little problem, however – the language barrier. Silvia speaks Spanish, and speaks very fast. Leah admits her Spanish is rusty at best. “My Spanish has gotten better, and she has learned to speak slower, so we’re finally at a point where she finishes my sentences,” she laughed. “Silvia has become part of our family.”
Leading up to surgery day, Silvia was fearless – and incredibly grateful, almost as if she was on a mission to get better. “The face-to-face medical interpreter at TMC was absolutely amazing and made all the difference for Silvia. Everyone at TMC was extraordinarily welcoming. They did everything they could to make Silvia comfortable, and they treated me as her mom,” said Leah.
Silvia was in TMC’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for five days following her surgery – something that was tough to prepare her for. “Despite telling her ‘it’s going to hurt, you’re going to be sick’ – there really was no way to prepare her for that,” said Leah.
Silvia was fortunate to be under the care of Dr. Luis Piedrahita, an orthopaedic surgeon from Tucson Orthopaedic Institute. “We are very fortunate to have one of the most advanced health care systems in the world,” he said. “The great majority of the world population has access only to basic medical care. Complex musculoskeletal problems are not treated and even ignored. Usually very complex surgeries like this one can only be performed here because of the limitations of instrumentation and lack of postoperative care. Bringing the patients here is the ideal thing to do, but requires a lot of non-medical work. I was very pleased with how Healing the Children was able to accomplish this efficiently, and I look forward to continuing to provide my support in any way I can.”
Anesthesiologist Dr. Luis Esparza from Old Pueblo Anesthesia was asked to participate since he speaks Spanish, and could therefore help her feel a little more comfortable so far from home. “I had the opportunity to be involved in providing care for her that she could never have obtained at home. I think that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that what seems routine to us can have such a huge impact on others. Being involved in cases like hers helps to remind me of that. I was happy to be part of the team that cared for her.”
A bright future ahead
The experience led to the creation of some big goals for Silvia. She wants to learn English, move to America, become a nurse, and be able to support her family back home. She knows that the one way to get there is through education.
Silvia goes to school in Honduras, whereas most children do not. During the three short months she was here, she made it clear – she wanted to go to school. So, the Shoemakers enrolled her in Emily Gray Junior High. “She found a bilingual student who has helped her quite a bit,” said Leah. “She has really embraced this experience and wants to see everything America has to offer.” At night, Silvia spends three to four hours figuring out her homework.
She even wrote a thank you note to TMC for giving her the surgery she needed.
Tucson family opens their hearts – and home
Leah Shoemaker’s inspiration to help children like Silvia stems from an experience involving one of her sons. When Aston, who’s now 9 years old, was a toddler, he suffered his first seizure. He was eventually diagnosed with a rare brain malformation and has since undergone three brain
surgeries. “When something is wrong with your child, one of the things you want is control over the situation. And you have none. The other thing you really want is help,” she said. “Throughout that process, I was just very happy that we have the care that we do in America. When you’re in the hospital, and you’re reflecting on things, you realize that there are a lot of parents who don’t have that ability to help their child. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being in a country, having a sick child, and not being able to help them. I wanted to help parents who don’t have the ability to help their children. I’m not part of bringing these kids here. I’m not on the surgical team. But I know the pain the mom goes through, and I know the pain the child goes through. And my family can help with that.”
Many years ago, she read an article in People Magazine about organizations that help children like this. It prompted her to do a little research, and make it happen. She discovered the Arizona chapter of HTC, which is based out of Scottsdale. Three years ago, they opened up their hearts and their home to a little girl from the Philippines who needed open heart surgery. Hosting Silvia and Doris was a positive experience for their family, and they say they will without a doubt – do it again. “The family thought it would be comforting for the girls to be together. They are truly an incredible, loving family who have a special place in their hearts for our children,” said Kristin Matthews, President/Co-Director, HTC Arizona. Since everything is charity based, host families don’t receive any reimbursement, making their commitment even more extraordinary.
Silvia heads back to Honduras next week, but not without leaving her mark in the states. “We will keep in touch with her forever,” said Leah. “These kids become part of your family, and we will never forget them.”