ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - Doctors and nurses from St. Louis are on a mission to change and save the lives of children in the Dominican Republic. FOX 2 was invited exclusively to join the team on a recent trip to witness the incredible work.
People often think of the Dominican Republic and its luxurious resorts and pristine beaches, but that isn't the reality for the majority of locals. The Pediatric Orthopedic Project seeks out uninsured patients in the poorest areas who desperately need the corrective spinal surgeries but wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it.
The organization was formed four years ago by Drs. Enrico and Madelyn Stazzone. Each year, they bring a team of a dozen or so doctors and nurses with them to the Arturo Grullon Children's Hospital Santiago, Dominican Republic to perform free corrective spine surgeries on children with scoliosis.
The condition causes the spine to grow at an angle, and the twisting and rotating of the bones causes the children to grow crooked. Some appear to have a hump on their backs. Internally, the chest wall becomes deformed causing complications for the heart and lungs. In severe cases, the complications can lead to death.
Eleven-year-old Lisbeth Garcia, the youngest patient treated during the most recent trip, had one of the most complicated cases the team had seen during its four years of mission work. However, it was her personal story that touched the hearts of many of the volunteers.
Lisbeth's father died suddenly a few years back, and her mother was no longer in the picture. She and her sisters were being raised by their grandmother, Altagracia Maria Yolanda Cruceta Arias, an elderly woman who walks with a cane and has no other form of transportation. Getting Lisbeth to her regular doctor's appointments was a struggle. Finding a way to pay for the nearly six-figure surgery would be impossible.
"I thank God more and more every day because the doctors made this happen for me; something that I will never be able to repay them back for," said Arias. "It would not have otherwise been possible, because how? With what money?'
Through their work in Santiago, the Stazzones and their team have learned the Dominican culture does not accept disabilities, and people with them are often shunned - unable to find work and undesirable for marriage.
"She would cry at times and tell me that she would like to be a normal girl because she is very disfigured," said Sol Maria Rodriguez, mother of 15-year-old Audrey. At her age, Audrey was already thinking about her future and her marriage prospects.
Make no mistake about it, the surgery is intense. Bones are broken, ground down, and realigned, and metal rods are implanted to hold it all in place.
"When we do this surgery, not only are we realigning bone, which is intense, we`re also moving their muscles and requiring their muscles to completely basically start over," said Jenny Felber, a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit.
Scoliosis surgery is considered a major procedure in the United States. Performing the major surgeries in third world conditions adds challenges. Proper medication and pain killers are hard to come by, electricity is unreliable, there is no air conditioning and sanitation standards are very different from what the team is used to.
The team overcame every obstacle in its way. It wasn't always easy, but they always found a way to provide their best level of care to the children, and step-by-step, the kids were up and walking.
"I feel completely brand new because I knew that they were going to fix me but not as well as they did," said Audrey a few days after her surgery.