16: Healing Hearts

16: Healing Hearts

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Healing Hearts

The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.

~Hubert H. Humphrey

“Mommy, don’t go,” my three-year-old screamed as I walked to the door. My fifteen-year-old leaned against the kitchen counter with his arms folded across his chest, not screaming, but glaring at me as I pried his brother off my legs.

“You’re mad at me too?”

“You spend all your time taking care of other people’s kids, but what about us?” Dylan shook his head and stomped away.

Was that true? Did he really think I cared about other kids more than I did my own? I’d spent the better part of a week two hours from home in Jacksonville, arranging for a seven-year-old boy from the Dominican Republic to have surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. I had at least another week of twelve-hour days before I could fly the boy back to his mother.

I was stunned and a little hurt. How could my own child not understand that the work I was doing was saving lives? Then the answer hit me. He didn’t know, because he had never seen what Healing the Children actually did. Dylan had heard the stories, but had never once looked into the eyes of a child and understood the hard truth — that without our help, the child would likely die.

“Get dressed. You’re going with me,” I said, without considering what a disaster taking him with me could turn out to be.

I spent the drive explaining the case to my son, who pretended to ignore me the entire time. “His name is Hector and he’s seven. He only weighs thirty pounds and is very sick. The kids in his village call him ‘Blue Boy’ because his skin and nails are blue from lack of oxygen in his blood. He has a heart condition called tetralogy of Fallot, which could kill him. It’s a miracle he’s still alive. Kids in the States get this condition fixed before they turn one.”

I went on to explain that Hector’s village didn’t have electricity and he was pretty scared being in an American hospital surrounded by machines. Hector came to the United States alone and had been staying with volunteers before he was admitted to the hospital for surgery. It took a team of volunteer medical staff and lay people to get him to Florida and care for him while he was here. Still, Dylan seemed unimpressed.

About a block from the hospital, we stopped at a convenience store for water and snacks. When he got to the register I asked why Dylan had one large and one small Slurpee. He told me that all kids loved Slurpees and the small one was for Hector. I doubted the little guy would be able to drink it, but remained silent. This was the first interest Dylan had shown in being there. I wasn’t about to ruin it.

I stopped at the nurse’s station to check on Hector’s progress while Dylan went to the room. Our patient was recovering physically, but the nurse was concerned that he was struggling emotionally. She said, “Kids usually bounce back fast, but he hardly speaks and never smiles.”

Imagine our surprise when we heard laughter from three doors down. I entered the room, with the nurse on my heels, and found Dylan sitting on the edge of Hector’s bed wiping chunks of frozen drink from Hector’s belly. Both boys were giggling and Hector was squirming away from the cold mess.

“I told you he would like a Slurpee. He’s having a hard time with the straw,” said a grinning Dylan.

I spent the remainder of the day speaking to doctors and watching my normally taciturn son play with a special little boy. Hector didn’t speak a word of English, and Dylan didn’t speak Spanish, but neither let that get in the way. They communicated with their own form of sign language and laughter. Unlike the adult volunteers who couldn’t quite reach him on his level, Dylan didn’t get frustrated or give up. It was truly amazing to watch them interact, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps to the two of them it was.

Dylan took Hector on a wagon ride through the hospital. Wolfson Children’s Hospital uses special wagons instead of wheelchairs for some of their patients. I had never noticed how the kids loved those wagons until that day. Seeing a kid in a wheelchair was always difficult, but seeing one in a wagon looked almost normal.

We took Hector outside for the first time since he was admitted to the hospital. I stood holding my breath as Dylan encouraged him to crawl out of the wagon and onto a tricycle. I hadn’t thought to ask how much physical activity he could tolerate. Even if I had, I doubt I would have had the heart to stop him when I saw the delight on his face. Riding a tricycle is no big deal for an American five-year-old. However, for a kid who normally couldn’t cross a room without being exhausted, riding a tricycle is nothing short of a miracle.

On the way home that night, Dylan broke down in tears. “Is Hector going to be okay?”

“I think so. He has a hard road ahead of him, but the surgery gave him a fighting chance,” I answered as my throat tightened with emotion.

“Can we adopt him?”

I looked at my son and shook my head. “He has a family waiting for him.”

“Mom, I took one look at his big brown eyes and…” Dylan paused and wiped his eyes. “Can I go with you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

The remainder of the drive was filled with laughter and hope. Dylan recalled some of the special moments he’d shared with Hector and made plans to bring video games and a portable DVD player the next day. He accompanied me to Jacksonville every day until it was time to say a tearful goodbye to Hector.

Over the next few years, Dylan volunteered with Healing the Children numerous times. We were able to bring several children to the United States to receive lifesaving medical treatment, but that only saved their little bodies. What saved their hearts was the caring and love of countless volunteers. Volunteers like a formerly moody teenager who never again complained about his mother’s crazy work schedule.

~Kathryn M. Hearst

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