Long time friends of Gran Pacifica Resort may remember the journey of Elkin Zapata and his Grandmother, when 10 years ago, they traveled to the United States so that Elkin could receive a very special operation. Since the story is so heartwarming, we thought it deserved to be told again.
|For eight-year-old Elkin Fonseca Zapata, what should have been a bright future in 2007 was not promising at all. With his motherdeceased and his father working far from their rural home in Los Cedros, Villa El Carmen, Nicaragua, Elkin fell from a Neem tree onto a barbed wire fence, fracturing his larynx and blocking his airway. At a hospital in Nicaragua, he received an emergency tracheotomy that saved his life, but relegated him to a life of wearing a metal tracheostomy tube inserted into his neck, making normal breathing and speaking extremely difficult.|
Faced with the stigma of his disability, and despite the steadfast love of his grandmother, his Abuela, Miriam Araica, with whom he lived, the otherwise bright, playful, and funny Elkin withdrew from his community of friends, dropped out of school and was at great risk of developing airway infections and complications. His life was spiraling downward, until his school teacher, Helio Alfaro, related his story to a team from Gran Pacifica Resort and innerCHANGE Associates International, who in turn, arranged an introduction with Edward M. Barksdale Jr., M.D., who was a pediatric surgeon with Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA.
When Dr. Barksdale visited Nicaragua in January 2007 and met Elkin, he realized that the boy’s dire situation could be reversed but only through a very rare, specialized airway reconstruction surgery available at Children’s Airway and Voice Center in Pittsburgh. To reconstruct a damaged or narrow airway, surgeons use carefully-shaped pieces of a child’s own rib cartilage to widen and repair the damaged area. Depending on the severity of the injury, recovery could take anywhere from a week to several months.
Working together, the team arranged for a medical trip to Pittsburgh so that Elkin could undergo life-changing surgery, led by Robert F. Yellon, M.D., an otolaryngologist with Children’s Hospital. Dr. Carl Ross, professor of nursing at Robert Morris University, and who has traveled to Nicaragua scores of times, opened his home to Elkin and his Abuela. To ease the potential fear of the unknown and to build a sense of excitement, Gran Pacifica videotaped a Spanish-speaking children’s physician who extended a greeting and tour. The clips were emailed to Gran Pacifica so they could be downloaded to a laptop and shown in advance to Elkin and Miriam in their rural home..
Approval of the travelers’ visa applications was expedited by the United States Embassy in Managua and U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli.
During a press conference in Managua, Elkin was named an official Ambassador of Good Will by Nicaragua’s Institute of Tourism (INTUR) before departing for Pittsburgh with a team of healthcare providers. The trip also was made possible by Rotary Clubs of Western Pennsylvania and American Airlines.
The surgery was successful. Elkin recovered wonderfully, and after 11 extraordinary weeks in Pittsburgh, he and his Abuela returned home, having made friends who would forever remember the experience.
Now, 10 years later, let’s revisit Elkin’s story and how his life has changed.
Helio Alfaro and I caught up with Elkin and his Grandmother just recently in Los Cedros, which is a municipality of Villa El Carmen. Elkin was happy to see us and was honored that we remembered him. He is 19 years old now, but still a little hesitant about sharing the details of his story. When asked about the operation that he received, he stated with great excitement, “oh, thank God, everything is good, and it has improved my life in such a great way!”
Elkin and Miriam spoke very fondly of Dr. Ross, and about all of the people in the United States that helped them. Miriam recalls that they were surrounded by lovely people who cared very deeply for them. Even though they were only together for a short time, they were all like family. When leaving for home, Miriam said that everyone cried. Elkin and Miriam have continued a relationship with Dr. Ross and hope he will be able to visit them soon.
Elkin is currently working as a Security Guard in Managua. He is focused on his work and doesn’t have the desire to test his daredevil skills any longer. His Grandmother is thankful that he doesn’t have any bad habits, except that she has noticed Elkin stays on his cell phone quite a bit these days! Unfortunately, we learned that Elkin’s father passed away 3 months ago, and with the loss of his mother at an early age, Miriam and him are now inseparable. Elkin is proud to be able to support his Grandmother like she supported him so many years ago.
With the upcoming opening of the Roberto Clemente III Medical Clinic at Gran Pacifica Resort, the hope is that many more success stories like these will happen. Community residents will be able to use the clinic, resources can be pooled, and everyone can get the healthcare they deserve. Small efforts can make all the difference to someone in need, just like Elkin.