October 6, 2006

Journey of hope: Community outreach gives Haitian youth new lease on life

Haitan children

Photo caption: Playing and meeting other children helped Jean Lys Lorthe while he waited for his heart surgery. Here, he shares time with the grandchildren of Joe and Sharel Zelenka. In the first row are, from left, Collier, Jean and Nick. In the second row are, from left, Autumn, Roland and Sarayia.

By John Shaughnessy

The small boy and the gray-haired man drove to the hospital together, both of them showing looks of concern.

For 9-year-old Jean Lys Lorthe, this was the day when he would have heart surgery at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

This was the day when the child from Haiti once again wished he could feel the comforting hug of his mother and could see her reassuring smile. His mother’s hug and smile were just two parts of her that Jean had increasingly missed ever since he said goodbye to her in their native country in late August.

Looking at Jean in the car, 66-year-old Joe Zelenka knew the one great fear that the boy had ever since he came to America. His surgery had originally been scheduled for Sept. 5, but a pre-operation exam showed that Jean had an abscess in his teeth, so the surgery had to be postponed for two weeks until antibiotics could heal the infection.

As the days dragged on, Zelenka noticed that Jean grew more and more fearful. The leader of the Haiti committee at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis finally asked Jean, through a translator, if he was worried that he would never return to Haiti and his family.

“He started crying,” Zelenka recalled. “I told him that as soon as the doctor releases him, I’d take him back to Haiti.”

For Zelenka, the impending surgery brought his own round of concerns and painful memories.

Jean is the second child that Zelenka had arranged to bring from Haiti to America in the hope of extending the child’s life. The first child was a 13-year-old girl named Anise. Zelenka had promised Anise and her family that the girl would return to Haiti after her surgery and run through the mountains.

Instead, Anise died following her operation in September of 2005.

So as Jean and Zelenka entered the hospital near 7 a.m. on Sept 19, they both faced a day when they carried their greatest hopes and their greatest fears with them.

Making the connection

Zelenka first met Jean in February of 2005, during one of the 35 mission trips he has made to Haiti since 1990—the year when St. Thomas Aquinas Parish began a connection with St. Jean Marie Parish in Belle Riviere, Haiti.

During that medical mission trip, Jean was examined by Dr. Terry Ihnat, a surgeon who works at Community Hospital in Indianapolis.

“As a rule, we see between 2,000 and 2,500 people a week when we’re in Haiti,” said Ihnat, a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Cicero, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. “Most of them are real routine. Most little kids come through smiling and laughing. Everybody gets their hearts and lungs listened to. He had a real loud heart murmur. It was easy to tell he needed attention.”

Jean was taken for further testing to a hospital in

Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. The tests showed he had a leaking mitral valve in his heart.

Zelenka knew that there is no heart surgery available for children in Haiti, so efforts were made to have the operation performed in the United States. Riley is one of the American hospitals that provide surgery for free in such cases. But the hospital didn’t have an opening for Jean until this September.

When it was time for Jean to travel to America, his

parents couldn’t get a visa to come with him. Zelenka was there to meet the boy when he stepped off the plane. His family’s home became Jean’s home.

“He’s a 9-year-old boy coming to a strange country, and he doesn’t know the language,” Zelenka said. “Then there’s the shock of knowing he’s facing surgery, and his mom and dad are not there. I can’t imagine myself being whisked away to surgery in Brazil or some other country when I was 9 and my mom and dad not there. He misses his mom and dad terribly.”

Dealing with the heartbreak

Before the surgery, a somber Jean was given a medication to relax him. Soon after, he was taken to the operating room for the surgery in which doctors would try to repair or replace the mitral valve. As he waited, Zelenka was comforted by the doctors’ relief that Jean’s heart wasn’t enlarged.

A year earlier, Zelenka had waited in Indianapolis as 13-year-old Anise Fluerentus underwent a heart operation at a hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“She had an aortic aneurysm,” Zelenka said. “They knew it was going to be a dangerous surgery. But they also knew it was her only chance. She was in surgery for about 10 hours. Everything was going well until they took her off the heart bypass machine. They hooked her back up to see what went wrong. Shortly after that, the heart stopped and they couldn’t revive her.

“There was a call made to Port-au-Prince to her mother. She was told through a Haitian translator that Anise was brain-dead, that she was on a machine. They asked her what she wanted to do. The mother knew she would have to live on a machine. She said we needed to let her die and she wanted the body cremated. I went down to Florida, picked up the ashes and went to Haiti.”

Zelenka describes that journey as the hardest trip he has ever made.

“I was afraid the family wouldn’t accept us or trust us,” he said. “I promised Anise she would come back healthy, she’d be able to run the mountains and she’d be great. When I got there with her ashes, I was greeted with just hugs and kisses. Obviously, there were tears, but there were also thanks for giving her a chance. They knew it was her only chance. I cried along with the family, and we prayed.”

Building a dream

Zelenka whispered prayers again as the hours from the beginning of Jean’s surgery slipped by.

He has also prayed and worked for a better solution to helping Haitian children who suffer from heart problems. For years, he has been part of the efforts to build Visitation Hospital in Haiti, a facility where children like Jean and Anise could be treated in their native land.

“We could begin building in October sometime,” he said. “We’ll start with a clinic that will have a birthing area, X-rays and community health outreach. The next phase is to build a 76-bed hospital. We have a commitment from two pediatric cardiovascular surgical teams from Tennessee. Once the hospital is built, they will perform up to 100 heart surgeries on children each year. That’s exciting to me. That certainly will make a difference.”

For now, the difference comes one child at a time. The difference comes with one parish reaching out to another.

“We’re never going to solve all the problems in Belle Riviere,” Zelenka said. “But they know there’s a community here that loves them, prays for them and is sharing a little bit of our excess to give them some hope.”

Wondering and worrying

Zelenka had been told that Jean’s surgery could last six hours. Near 12:30 p.m., he saw Jean’s surgeon—Dr. John Brown—walking toward him, Dr. Ihnat and Dixie Ihnat. The couple had kept vigil with Zelenka.

The past five hours of wondering and worrying about Jean had come down to this one moment. Stress and anticipation filled Zelenka as he waited for the doctor’s words.

“The doctor said he was really pleased,” Zelenka said. “Dr. Brown said he anticipated much more difficulty, but when they got in there, they were able to repair the valve instead of having to replace it. Thank God for that.”

Zelenka was allowed to visit Jean in the recovery room. Seeing the small boy hooked up to monitors, tubes and wires, he noticed that Jean was still groggy and tired. He approached Jean’s bed, touched his head and made a joke to the boy. Jean looked at him and smiled.

“It’s always a long day,” Zelenka said later. “There’s the anticipation of wondering what’s happening. It’s stressful, but I prayed a lot that everything would work out. He really looks good.”

Jean looked even better six days later. Released from the hospital, he played with toys in Zelenka’s home. Through a translator, Jean said he felt good. His huge smile was even more telling.

Once the doctor examines Jean again, Zelenka hopes to be able to take the boy back to his family in Haiti by mid-October.

“I feel grateful that Jean was given a chance,” Zelenka said. “I feel God has blessed him and St. Thomas. That somehow we have been able as a parish to make a difference. As I said before, we are not going to save Haiti, but we can make a difference. And we made a difference in the life of a small boy.

“It says a lot about grace, a lot about faith.”

(Editor’s note: “Stewards Abroad” is an occasional series that looks at the missionary efforts of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis throughout the world.) †

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