Haiti, Boston and Lifesaving Surgery

January 6, 2017

In 2008, then 11-year-old Johvenka presented at SBH’s pediatric clinic with a serious heart defect and a host of other problems. Too much exertion would force her to lie down, and left untreated, her condition guaranteed a shortened life expectancy.

Our team mobilized. Rita Russo, then acting as a point person in the U.S. for catastrophic illnesses, arranged for a host family and liaised with the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation to ensure coverage of Johvenka’s medical bills. With everything arranged, Johvenka was set to travel to the U.S. for care in 2010. Then, tragedy struck in the form of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti. Johvenka was unreachable: the family lost their phone, she said.

With the country in disarray and SBH employees unable to locate or get in touch with Johvenka or her family, months passed. But one day, Johvenka showed up at the hospital. Plans for her treatment and transfer to the U.S. were once again set in motion: The same host family who had agreed to host her five years ago was still willing, and the Ray Tye Foundation negotiated and would pay her medical bills.

Johnvenka, 15, traveled to the U.S. on April 3, 2013, and began receiving treatment for a variety of complications at Tufts Medical Center and Floating Hospital for Children shortly thereafter. Her last surgery—a cardiac procedure to address her critical pulmonary valve stenosis—was on May 14, and five days later, she was discharged. Healthy.

On June 12, Johvenka traveled back to Haiti with HEI/SBH President and CEO Conor Shapiro. The plane was delayed, and they landed in Port-au-Prince at night, unsure of how to now locate Johvenka’s family. They soon found the family, who was waiting near Johnveka’s home on the side of the highway. Johvenka, who had been very quiet, immediately yelled out to her mother and ran to her. Joy at several things—being healthy, being back in Haiti, and being with family—was evident.

Shapiro later commented on the significance of Johvenka’s journey:

“It seems like such a simple thing: In the U.S., we would have the ability to provide care like this on a routine basis. Here, it’s remarkable because it involved a lot of different people along the way—her host family, Rita, the medical teams that performed these procedures, our driver, and others. To see it all come together and know that without this care, she would have died—that’s a pretty remarkable thing, and a true testament to our staff and supporters.”