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A place to put hearts right

Six children from Haiti will receive lifesaving surgery thanks to the efforts and generosity of several groups pulling together.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 21, 2003

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[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Pascal Saint Fleur, 13, one of six Haitian children who have been flown to the Tampa Bay area for lifesaving heart surgery, receives a cardiogram at St. Joesph's Children's Hospital in Tampa on Monday.
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TAMPA - If Pascal Saint Fleur is afraid, he is not showing it.

His big brown eyes are framed with long, delicate lashes. He looks at everything without a trace of trepidation.

Not when the doctor grips his chest in a cold hospital room, and not when the nurse takes his blood pressure as he sits, shirtless, in a room full of strangers.

And not even when he stepped off a plane in Tampa on Saturday night to a waiting family that doesn't look like him or speak his language.

Pascal, a 13-year-old from Haiti, knows that everything that's happening right now is intended to save his life. He'll need five hours of surgery today to repair problems with two valves in his heart.

He's one of six Haitian children who are in the Tampa Bay area for cardiac surgery. Three are scheduled for operations at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa; three others will receive the surgery at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

All of them come from poor cities in Haiti. Many, including Pascal, are orphans. Those who have parents are in Florida by themselves - the Haitian government wouldn't give the childrens' parents visas for the trip.

For some, this trip is the first time they've slept in a room by themselves. Sophinie Wilfranc, 13, has the same heart condition as Pascal. She's also staying in Tampa and seems happy to have her own bedroom and bathroom, said Karen Lyons, her host mother.

"Her face just lit up when she saw her room," said Lyons. "She just smiles and says "Oui.' She's very gracious."

During an orientation meeting held before the children arrived, the families were told not to "spoil the kids too much."

"We were told that coming to our home would be like going to Disneyland," said Lyons.

The children range in age from 1 to 16 years old. All are afflicted with potentially deadly heart problems. Pascal's problems are probably the result of poor medical conditions in Haiti; untreated strep throat or rheumatic fever can cause such heart defects, doctors say.

A missionary group called Haitian Hearts found the children through the group's clinic in that country. It then joined with the Tampa Bay Rotary club to find host families for the kids.

Mike Connell, a business owner from Tampa, is Pascal's host. Connell, his wife and their two children didn't quite know what to expect when Pascal arrived - none speak French or Creole, Pascal's native languages. During his first two days in Tampa, Pascal explored his own bedroom and learned to use the TV remote control.

A missionary doctor in Haiti previously explained the procedure and the trip to Pascal, which could be why he gives the St. Joseph's Hospital doctor and nurse a smile after they check him over.

Connell took Pascal to a pre-operative visit at the hospital on Monday.

"He's been given a chance to look death in the face," said Connell. "A chance at a longer life."

Everything, from the $100,000 surgery to the mechanical heart valves, is being donated. The Rotary is giving St. Joseph's Hospital $5,000 for Pascal's surgery as part of its "Gift of Life" program. Agape Flights, based at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, donated the flight from Haiti.

"Gift of Life" is a worldwide Rotary International Service program intended to help needy children in foreign countries obtain open-heart surgery in the United States.

In 1996, St. Joseph's Children's Hospital became the first Florida hospital to participate in the program.

More than 50 children from countries such as Bosnia, Cuba and Uganda have received lifesaving surgery at the Tampa hospital.

If everything goes well, Pascal will be in the hospital for a week. He will then spend several weeks recovering at the Connells' home.

Through an interpreter, Pascal says he would like to stay in the United States. One doctor with Haitian Hearts says it would be ideal if a family here adopted Pascal.

"Through these programs, they have given Pascal life," said Connell. "Then he goes back to Haiti and we don't know what that transforms to."

- Times staff writer Bill Duryea contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 226-3373 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 21, 2003, 01:48:40]


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