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Rotary sponsors child’s heart surgery

By Staff | Jun 21, 2013

Five-year-old Said Menard is as typical as you get for a boy his age – he smiles, likes to play and even get into a little mischief.

It’s hard to believe that a few months ago it was a struggle for him to sit up, or even breathe.

But thanks to the generosity of the Rotary Club of Cape Coral North and the Rotary’s Gift of Life International program, Said will be able to live a normal life and return to his family in the Dominican Republic, when before he faced a slim chance of surviving to his next birthday.

Said and his mother were special guests at the Rotary Club’s monthly meeting Wednesday at Palmetto Pine Country Club, where they had the opportunity to say thank you to everyone who had a hand in saving Said’s life.

It was a tough road, and the child was even close to death after a series of setbacks, but he’s certainly in a better place today because of the work of the Rotarians.

“He’s had several surgeries and a lot of close calls. So, it’s been an exciting, scary, nervous occasion for all of us,” said Rotary President Colleen Howe. “The thing that’s exciting for me is this was my pet project, so for me to see it come to fruition is exciting.”

Said was born with a life-limiting congenital heart condition. Known as a “blue baby,” his heart didn’t pump the oxygen needed to thrive. This made him lethargic and his complexion a ghastly shade of blue.

Sumergris Vargas, Said’s mother, said she had tried to get help for two years, knowing his chances of life were dwindling.

All seemed lost until he was discovered during a Rotary Gift of Life International medical mission to the Dominican Republic.

“I learned about Rotary through a relative. I brought him in for an evaluation and put it in the hands of God and prayed it would happen,” Vargas said through Mila Cueva, an interpreter.

Steve Agius, Rotary Gift of Life of Florida president, said they did not come to them through traditional means.

“Normally, they send us medical charts of children, which we send to participating hospitals,” Agius said. “In this case, the executive director was in the Dominican Republic, and was given charts, and (Said) was the most critical one, so he went to the front of the list.”

The doctor approved Said, the Rotary Club got the wheels going, and soon, Said and his mother were issued emergency visas to come to the United States for open-heart surgery at Holtz Children’s Hospital in Miami.

They arrived in the states on April 18. It was their first time on American soil. Surgery came soon after.

But unlike most cases where the children are ready to come home in 10 days, Said’s troubles were just beginning.

“He was getting a lot of infections around the heart and then it affected his lungs, so they readmitted him, which is unusual,” Agius said.

“The operation went great, but his lungs were filling with fluid. The tried to drain him a couple times a day,” Cueva said. “They had to open both sides of his body and spray antibiotic all over his lungs. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have him now.”

The local Rotary club provided housing, transportation and financial support. Such an operation as Said had would normally cost more than $150,000, with all the problems he suffered in the aftermath.

The hospitals agree to charge the Rotary $5,000 for the entire cost of the operation, Agius said.

Under the care of Rotary, Said has stayed with the family of Jean De Keyser, who speaks Spanish and also experienced the nerves, stress and joy with Sumergris and her family, who the Rotary said are now part of their family.

“We’re an international family. My wife is Peruvian so we speak Spanish and had no problem communicating,” De Keyser said. “I think the culture shock was greater for them.”

Said continues his recovery, and though he’s still somewhat under weight, doctors say his prospects are good for a healthy future. He and his mother will return to the Dominican Republic sometime next week.

The family could be in for a shock when they see Said, who will return home a completely different person.

“The difference in Said is night and day. When we brought him to Miami he could hardly move,” De Keyser said. “All of a sudden he has tons of energy and playing in the pool.”

When they arrived at the meeting, Said was nervous and clung to his mother for dear life. Slowly, he came out of his shell and began to smile, laugh and, yes, walk, which he hadn’t been able to do before.

And though she could speak no English, Sumergris expressed their thanks to everyone who had touched them so.

“I’m very grateful from the bottom of my heart. That Rotary was able to work it out and get Said the surgery to save his life,” Sumergris said. “I will always be thankful.”

Said, who received his share of gifts while in Miami, got more from Rotarian Philip Arnold. He got three Fort Myers Miracle baseball hats and three baseball gloves so he can play catch with his brothers when he returns home.

Rotary Gift of Life offers open-heart surgeries to countries that don’t have it. Since 1997, the organization has brought in 300 children.

It has also sponsored medical missions to hospitals in other countries to save children’s lives there while training medical staff so they can save lives.