Miracle migration

International | Persistent Virginia Christians, a generous doctor, and government officials team up to help a sick Cuban baby

Issue: "Fighting Potomac fever," Feb. 27, 1999

The echocardiogram report confirmed what Ernesto Cue diagnosed with a simple stethoscope and a trained ear: Daniel Cuellar Santana, born Nov. 2, had hypoplastic left heart syndrome. His weak one-chambered heart could not support his body's circulation. After the initial diagnosis, doctors at Children's Pediatric Center of Havana-lacking both tools and expertise to help him-sent the 18-day-old Cuban child home to die. Dr. Cue was not so quick to give up. Both he and his young patient's family are members of Lagunillas Baptist Church, 75 miles east of Havana. Their congregation has a 4-year-old sister relationship with Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va. Dr. Cue faxed Daniel's sad diagnosis as a prayer request to Freemason. Days later, Daniel's grandmother faxed a note to Norfolk: "Do your doctors think this diagnosis is correct, and do you think there's anything that the doctors here in Cuba can do?" Daniel's left heart chamber was underformed, and a vessel that diverts blood from the lungs before birth supplied the only blood flow to the rest of his body. Since this vessel normally closes shortly after birth, most babies with Daniel's condition survive no longer than two weeks if left untreated. A radiologist who worships at the Norfolk church examined the report. He saw right away that the baby needed a series of surgeries offered only at select medical centers in the United States-and he needed them immediately. The hurdles seemed insurmountable. How could Daniel's family pay an American doctor for a procedure costing tens of thousands of dollars when a well-paid Cuban earns $19 a month? Given the staying power of Fidel Castro and the United States' long-term effort to use trade sanctions to destabilize Castro and ultimately free the Cuban people, how would his parents secure the necessary cooperation from the opposing governments in Havana and Washington in time to save Daniel's life? Cuba restricts its citizens from traveling abroad. Its visa application process takes months that Daniel didn't have, and often ends in denial. The United States' embargo of Cuba limits even humanitarian aid to the island, and its visa process excludes many Cubans from entering. In Norfolk, Freemason Street Baptist's associate pastor, Wayne Blythe, read from the pulpit the Cuban church's fax during a Sunday call to prayer. Daniel's plight gripped the 100-member congregation. Strong bonds have developed between the two churches since a U.S. association that partners with the denomination in Cuba linked them in 1995. Mr. Blythe and other members paid annual visits to Lagunillas to bring encouragement and humanitarian aid. Four years ago, a Cuban Christian music group performed in the Norfolk church and its musicians lodged with church members for several days. Last year, Lagunillas' pastor visited Norfolk. "It is amazing what a sense of family exists between those of us who have traveled to Cuba and the friends we have met there," Mr. Blythe said. "Does not family take care of family?" The commitment began with prayer. In tiny Lagunillas, the church prayed and fasted. In Norfolk, sister congregants prayed and passed the news about the baby to Bible studies, a Christian school, believers in nearby Virginia Beach, and Internet bulletin boards. Daniel's faxed echocardiogram report bumped along a chain of medical friendships until it reached Richard Perryman, a pediatric cardiac surgeon based at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. Dr. Perryman often volunteers to travel to Jamaica and Trinidad to operate on needy children. He agreed to perform the $30,000 surgery Daniel needed for free. The Virginia church committed to fly Daniel and his mother, Miriela Santana, to Florida. But the tax-supported hospital had its own charges and needed a cash down payment before giving its go-ahead to the surgery. Virginia believers pooled their resources. "On Sunday, people had come up to me and said, 'Count me in for $1,000,' and 'Kick us in for $500,'" Mr. Blythe said. One Sunday school class donated $10,000. Baptist and Presbyterian churches in Virginia Beach contributed. Someone donated a holiday bonus earmarked for a family Christmas vacation. In less than a week, Freemason raised $26,000. A private pilot in Virginia Beach volunteered air transportation. In Cuba, Daniel's mother applied for passports and exit visas for her and her only child. They also applied to the United States Interests Section for an entry visa. On Dec. 23, Mr. Blythe stayed in his Norfolk office from early morning until 9 p.m., pleading via phone, fax, and e-mail with the State Department, U.S. Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Additionally, Mr. Blythe sought a Commerce Department license to fly a private plane into Cuba. Then came bad news. "We were told [by U.S. officials] that the visa would be very likely denied, but that this was not a final decision," Mr. Blythe said. "But, there were a lot of positive people in the U.S. government who said this was the right thing to do." He responded forcefully to State Department concerns that Mrs. Santana and Daniel would remain in the United States after their visa expired. "I said this relationship between the two churches is very important to us, and I'm sure they are going to return, but if they don't, we will not apply to visit Lagunillas any more," Mr. Blythe said. On Christmas Eve, both governments approved the visas, and Cuba issued the passports. The Commerce Department permitted the flight, and Mrs. Santana and Daniel left for Florida the day after Christmas. Dr. Perryman acknowledged that Daniel lived a miracle even before surgery: The vessel that would normally close had remained open. He operated successfully on Daniel on Dec. 29 and believes the infant's survival chances are "quite good." Two more surgical procedures will be required, the first within two years, and Dr. Perryman is willing to do them if the surgeries cannot be performed in Cuba. Although the Cuban government continues to regulate many church activities, it has relaxed some oppressive laws, which Dr. Perryman believes allowed Daniel's case to reach the United States. "Lifting of restrictions on religious practice in Cuba may have been what made this child's life different," the cardiac surgeon said. "If there had not been the relationship between the two churches, this child would not have been taken care of. Nobody would have known about the child." U.S. officials who became aware of Daniel's plight haven't forgotten him, either, according to Mr. Blythe, who says he receives regular e-mails from bureaucrats checking on Daniel. And, he added, prayer continues as the infant heals. After being discharged from the hospital, Daniel and his mother stayed with relatives in Miami while the infant recuperated. They returned home to Cuba on Feb. 14. The day Daniel and his mother flew to the United States, his great-uncle wrote Freemason Street Baptist Church a letter, saying, "Now you are the 'parents,' the 'brothers,' and the family of Danielito and Miriela. Take care of them, love them, [because] our arms do not reach all the way there."
-Deann Alford is a journalist living in Austin, Texas.

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