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Healing heart of a Haitian teen

A St. Petersburg doctor goes to great lengths to get surgery for the youth.

By Nick Johnson, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008


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TIERRA VERDE - Valentine's Day caused many people to turn their attention to matters of the heart last week. But for the last year Dr. Frederic Guerrier has opened up his home, trying to get one heart in particular the attention it needs.

It belongs to Jean Victor Gustave, a 16-year-old Haitian boy, and he suffers from a condition called ventricular septal defect, a two centimeter hole between the left and right ventricles.

Guerrier, a family practitioner, was on a 10-day medical mission to his native Haiti last April when he came across the boy in the town of Leogane. He was among nearly 800 people the doctor saw on his trip.

"I figured out he had a hole in his heart. Then came the problem of what are you going to do about it," Guerrier said, adding that Haiti, a developing nation, has little to no health care system.

"If you have money, I'm sure you can get care, but if you want IVs or antibiotics, you have to go to the pharmacy, buy it, and bring it to the hospital," he said.

Gustave's condition allows un-oxygenated blood being pumped back to his lungs to mix with the oxygenated blood that's being pumped back out into the rest of his body. Any physical exertion leaves him feeling overly tired.

Guerrier was determined to get Gustave the treatment he needed and began the arduous process of bringing him to the United States.

He recommended Gustave to the cardiology department at All Childern's Hospital.

All Children's performs about 10 heart surgeries a year, free of charge, to children from outside the U.S., president and CEO Gary Carnes said.

While children from around the state are never turned away for treatment, children from outside of the country must be recommended by a physician associated with the hospital.

Then it's up to the physician to prove that the child will be able to receive the necessary followup care in his or her home country and get the approval of any hospital staff that will be involved in the surgery.

"In this case, you have the cardiac surgeon, but you also have the cardiologist and the intensive-care nurse and radiology, who all have to agree to do it for free and generally they all do," Carnes said. "I mean, rarely does a physician say no."

And then there is the issue of getting a visa.

In order to help get Gustave and his mother, Yolene St. Juste, the visas they needed, Guerrier took them into his Tierra Verde home. They will stay with him and his wife, Marlene, throughout the surgery and recovery.

After a failed attempt to patch the hole last month, the boy will need to have open heart surgery. The procedure is scheduled for Friday.

In the meantime, the doctor has sent the boy and his mother to visit with family in Philadelphia.

When asked about their good fortune, both speak of their faith. Gustave says he's not worried about the surgery, God is with him. His mother said that if God made it possible for them to leave Haiti, everything will be okay.

Faith indeed is what brought them here.

St. Juste works as the treasurer and bookkeeper at the St. Francis School in Leogane, a school built as part of an outreach program sponsored by St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg.

James Bennett, St. Petersburg City Council member and an acquaintance of Guerrier's, is an active member of the outreach program that helps bring food, clothes, education and medical care to the impoverished community.

"Our little school offers them an education and a little hope for the future," Bennett said.

It was through Bennett that Guerrier came to visit the St. Francis School, where he met Gustave.

Although Guerrier has volunteered for years at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, this act of charity has special meaning for him.

He recalls how he came to the United States when he was 16, the same age as Gustave. Ten years later he became a medical doctor.

"Maybe he will get better and help someone else."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

[Last modified February 16, 2008, 23:38:00]


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