Boy who touched many hearts loses fight for life
By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ten-year-old Hector "Mael" Ojeda, a Bolivian boy whose life-threatening disease inspired an outpouring of generosity from the community, died Tuesday at All Children's Hospital, his family by his side.
In October 1999, Hector was diagnosed with aplastic anemia and a pre-leukemic blood disorder. His family, from a poor town in the Andes Mountains, sold many of their possessions to pay for the boy's medical care.
While appealing to the Bolivian vice president for help, the boy's mother, Elvira Ojeda, ran into Irma Canedo Bridgeford, a St. Petersburg resident, Bolivian native and friend of Jerry Barbosa, medical director of hematology/oncology at All Children's.
Hector and his mother came here on Christmas Day 1999 and moved into a room at Ronald McDonald House on Fourth Street S.
Barbosa took over the boy's care, which involved chemotherapy and frequent transfusions. Hector's condition stabilized, but he pined for the rest of his family -- his father Felipe, older brother, Nestor, and younger sister, Susana.
Ronald McDonald House director Donna Young enlisted help from the Children's Wish Foundation and in August 2000 the rest of the Ojedas arrived.
None spoke English. They quickly settled in, the parents doing odd jobs around Ronald McDonald House, Nestor and Susana enrolling in school.
A Times story in March 2001 profiled the family and the many people helping them -- social workers who untangled visa issues, dentists and eye doctors who donated services, friends who dropped off clothing and fast-food gift certificates.
"We have a family of the heart here," Felipe Ojeda told the Times.
Eventually Felipe Ojeda got a green card and a minimum-wage job in the kitchen at All Children's. Former St. Petersburg City Council candidate Chris Eaton, who does humanitarian work in Latin America, offered the Ojedas a two-bedroom apartment with reduced rent.
Hector's siblings became fluent in English and excelled in school. Nestor, now 14, attended Lakewood High School and will transfer to St. Petersburg High this fall. Susana, 8, is finishing second grade at Campbell Park Elementary.
Meanwhile, Hector grew sicker.
Because he also had hepatitis B, a bone marrow transplant would have been risky, Barbosa said. Two months ago, Hector developed a lung infection and was hospitalized. After rallying briefly, he took a turn for the worse Monday evening. At midnight, he called Barbosa at home and told him the pain was excruciating.
A half-hour later he died.
Lupi Coffin, an All Children's medical technologist who became close to the family, said Elvira Ojeda is devastated.
"This has been her life for 2-1/2 years, taking care of her son," Coffin said.
The Ojedas, she added, are deeply grateful for the many people who have helped them. And they feel they owe it to Hector. "I've been taking care of kids with cancer for 25 years," Barbosa said, "And I've never seen any family touch so many people."
Funeral plans were pending Tuesday; friends of the family hope a local funeral home might volunteer to handle arrangements.
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