Ricardo Adonay Murga, a toddler in a striped shirt from El Salvador, babbles with life on a projected screen in an auditorium. He taps his mother’s hand and squirms in his older sister’s arms, all but jumping between their laps. The boy’s voice sometimes dominates the room too.
Just a few months ago though, family members and doctors said, Ricardo struggled because a heart defect they couldn’t afford treatment for. He weighed only six pounds as a one year old. He couldn’t walk. Ricardo also frequently found himself in the hospital because of pneumonia, rather than the flu.
But then, they said, Ricardo got “a second life” thanks to help from the Manhasset-based Gift of Life International and Brentwood Rotary, who spearheaded a fundraising effort in honor of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, two teenagers allegedly killed by MS-13, to provide lifesaving surgery for children.
“Before his surgery, he used to cry a lot, he didn’t gain weight,” Geobanna Linares, Ricardo’s mother, said over Skype to the parents and other attendees. “He’s a happier and healthier kid and the recovery was very successful.”
Ricardo and his family met Elizabeth Alvarado and Rob Mickens, the parents of the late Nisa Mickens, as well as Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of Kayla Cuevas, for the first time on Thursday afternoon at the Brentwood Public Library.
In addition to helping Ricardo, whose procedure was June 2, the fundraising effort also helped Johana Elizabeth Reyes, 7, who was operated on July 18 this year but could not make it for the meeting.
The chat over Skype – facilitated by a translator – sometimes got emotional, with Alvarado and Rodriguez once holding back or wiping away tears.
Rob Mickens, Nisa’s father, said his daughter always made it a point to try helping people. So through efforts like this, he said, she lives on.
“She’s not physically here, but her spirit will continue to live on by helping another child with a second chance at life,” Mickens said, adding that he knows one never knows if there will be a tomorrow.
“Our girls got taken, but saving these two kids kind of brings us a little comfort,” Alvarado said. “It’s still going to be the same thing, but knowing that we helped these two kids, we can live on and we can do good things with their name.”
Gift of Life CEO Rob Raylman, who was with the family over the Skype call, said it was also emotional on their end. The family spent five hours trying to reach Benjamin Bloom Hospital, he said, because they needed to thank the groups and parents for saving her son’s life.
“It’s a very special gift you’ve given Geobanna – you gave her her son back and she knows that,” Raylman said. “And forever, he will live with the knowledge that somebody else cared for him.”
Robbie Donno, the founder of Gift of Life, said that the organization has operated on nearly 30,000 children around the world since it brought 5-year-old Grace Agwaru to St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn for open-heart surgery in 1975.
And for the 1.3 million children born each year with a congenital heart defect – 93 percent of whom normally don’t have access to cardiac care – a case like Ricardo’s can stand as “a beacon of hope” to parents who otherwise “face the certainty of attending their children’s funeral,” Donno said.
“The memory of Kayla and Nisa will become a light, a beacon of hope for all those families who are praying that a miracle will help save their children,” Donno said. “That light will shine on all of us and show the path for those who would be willing to join this life saving journey.”
The fundraising challenge hopes to initially help 10 children total, with procedures costing roughly $5,000 each. In addition to the two children already treated in El Salvador, Gift of Life International and the Brentwood Rotary aims to help two children each in Kosovo, Romania, Haiti and Uganda get heart procedures.
Ivonne Lopez, the executive director of Latidos de Esperanza, said groups like the Gift of Life International, the Rotary and companies, have also helped them treat around 1,200 children and plan to help at least 200 more in Salvadorian hospitals this year.