Providence has several definitions, for our purposes, we will refer to the third meaning in the Oxford dictionary: “the timely preparations for future eventualities.”
For months, her DRC cardiologist had lobbied and advocated for us to help her. Her family subsisted with little income and much prayer. We accepted her as a candidate. This is how we came to meet Juliana, a polite, yet precocious 5-year-old. After much preparation and countless hours of time-zone challenged coordination, inter-country negotiations, visas, and echocardiograms submitted, she had arrived blue-lipped, tired, and nauseated, having just traveled on her first airplane ride from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC) to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, where we were based for our cardiac mission. Neither she nor her mother spoke English or Swahili, so I stepped in as their interpreter and communicated with them in French, explaining things as they came up.
Our US-based cardiology team and our Italian based Vatican team worked with the local Tanzania doctors and ran a few more exams, a new set of echoes, and then scheduled her for surgery. She would be one of 15 surgeries scheduled for the week. Three hearts a day.
But all systems ground to a halt when her mother objected, wanting her daughter to have her heart fixed through interventional catheterization. We were taken aback. Why? Her hole was too large. It either had to be surgery or Juliana and her mother would have to return home to an uncertain future. We were stunned, months of timely preparations and coordination wasted, other kids denied an opportunity, we didn’t understand how she could get so close only to give it up. It turns out that Juliana and her family were Jehovah’s witnesses. She could not have open-heart surgery. She could not accept a blood transfusion, as this went against the tenets of their faith. Mending Kids as an organization believes that all children deserve a healthy future.
We do not screen, nor do we classify children by their religion. We operate on any child in need, provided the parent gives this permission. Would we have accepted her into the program, had we known this? Very good question, yet here she was, in front of us, a life that could be saved, yet a roadblock ground us to a halt.
Frustration was mounting. Another child in the schedule was moved up so that we would not lose precious surgical time during our five days there. The mom called her husband in the DRC to consult and pray with him, waiting for elders in their church to weigh in, time ticking away. Finally, the father agreed to have Julianna receive surgery, only she could not receive any blood. Open-heart surgery without a transfusion?
Providence stepped in when our perfusionist, the person who would monitor the heart-lung machine (designed to act as a mechanical heart and lung oxygenator to keeping all of her organs functioning while our surgeon mobilized her heart to fix it), declared that he could help her. He had experience with Jehovah’s witness patients. And, as it turns out, was one of a handful of perfusionists in Europe capable of doing so. And here he was with us on a cardiac mission in Tanzania! Our surgeon felt obligated to save her and with the support of our perfusionist, felt that she had a shot, so they moved to proceed. This would be no walk in the park.
When Juliana was placed in the operating room theater, the Tanzanian nurses surrounded her and laid their hands on her heart, and prayed in Swahili for her wellbeing. The Italian team stood back while they went ahead with their spiritual communique. Juliana wide-eyed and nervous looked at them, not understanding a word, while her mother was in the waiting room praying in french with her father on a long-distance call to Kinshasa.
The surgery was a success. Juliana received her lifesaving surgery and defied the odds to survive. Her days in the ICU were many as she was very slow to recover. Her mother sat at her bedside watching over her and fretting and complaining that she wasn’t making fast enough progress. Post-operative kids were cycling out of the ICU to the ward and yet Juliana remained. Her body was anemic and needed to produce the new red blood cells that she would need to regain her strength. We explained all this to the mom, that her daughter would have been out faster had she received a transfusion. Julianna did recover and traveled home and back to her family and community. Their prayers were answered.
The enormity that Juliana, a poor, young girl born in a country without a comprehensive cardiac program, found her way to a cardiologist, to a host country that would accept a foreign child, and with Mending Kids team at the right time on the perfect mission, made possible by the gifts of hundreds of strangers who would never meet her but somehow believed in her right to have a future ... If this wasn’t an example of providence, no matter what you believe, I don’t know what was.
Together, we are Mending Kids.