Belize: Making New Friends

Story by Raj Godavarthi, LEAP Belize Team Member

IMG_4130Agapito Garcia is by profession a tailor who has worked in Belize City for decades. A few years ago, he moved to Corozal to take up sugar cane farming (although he does go back to Belize City to tailor “men’s, women’s, everything”).

His fifth child Briana was born two years ago in Corozal with a cleft palate. From the start, the family had to brave many challenges—including feeding little Briana with a syringe until they could order special long nipples from Singapore, ONE at a time.

The family drove over on LEAP’s first day on the ground and was extremely happy to have Briana scheduled for surgery the next day. Early Saturday, Dad, Mom, and three daughters arrived, full of cheer and energy. I spoke to 14-year-old Genesis for a while—a smart and mature young lady. I “read her palm” and told her she’d be a doctor some day. She threw back her head, laughed heartily, and said she was not the smart one. We spoke of how if she put her mind to it, the world would conspire to make it happen.

Little Briana meanwhile went around charming her way into everyone’s hearts. Against this backdrop, 7-year old Allison started the systematic process of knowing the details of everyone on the LEAP team, lulling us all into a false sense of security with her cheerful chatter but throwing in a zesty zinger once in a while to remind us of how smart she really is. I tried the “I-predict-you’ll-be-a-doctor-someday” routine, and immediately she asked if she could try a stethoscope. Seeing me hesitate, she said, “Don’t I need to try it to see if I can be a doctor?” A deal was made, a stethoscope obtained, and a child was happy (for a few minutes).

Late afternoon, Briana went into surgery, and Allison’s mood turned somber as she worried about her little sister. Over 2.5 hours, Drs. Evan Beale and Lauren Bourell performed a cleft palate surgery to close off the oral cavity from the nasal cavity, which will help her speak and eat better.

When Briana came out of surgery, Allison could take the wait no more, and she boldly walked into the recovery area. One look at her sister, and the tears came flooding down. She was so worried that her baby sister seemed to have thread on her lips and was crying.

IMG_4126As the nurses and non-medical team members tried to comfort Briana and help her in a post-op recovery room, I sat down to comfort Allison. I explained what anesthesia is, why Brianna needed an IV, and how she didn’t need to worry about the “strings” because they would go away. I told her all would be well, if she smiled and brought energy to everyone like always. Ever the consummate deal maker, she saw an opening and asked, “Can I have two more Slinky toys for my sisters?” We made a “top secret deal” – and I re-read her palm, this time telling her she’d be a leader of her nation someday (and that I believe!).

Briana was out of surgery but needed another IV. I was roped into holding her down. Trust takes a long time to win and almost nothing to lose. Within moments, I became the “bad guy” as far as Briana was concerned. I hate being the bad guy; I took one for the team.

The next morning, I went with the medical team to check in on the family, and my heart broke. Briana was there with her mother, but she refused to say hello or smile – and kept pointing to where I had been responsible for her being poked. I continued to try and win her back as Agapito dropped in to check on his wife and child. I had to step out for a bit, but when I came back, the family was gone.

Disappointed, I started trudging back to the clinic, and a car pulled up beside me on the road. Bubbly Genesis jumped out! Agapito had gone to fetch the rest of the family who had spent the night sleeping in the car some distance away.  A few minutes earlier or later and I would have missed them. It was time for some selfies and pictures. They asked when we would be back, and Agapito told me how inspired Genesis was to be a doctor (our conversation had obviously been relayed). “We are so thankful to you all,” he said before getting back into the car.

Before they drove away, little Briana gave me a smile and a high-five.

I am not a bubbly, friendly, people-loving guy on the outside. However, there are moments that melt even the grumpiest frown away. Here in Belize, I made some new friends: two happy parents who can’t wait to see us all when we return, one child eager to be a doctor, one Little Miss Spitfire that is itching to lead her nation, and one two-year old who trusts me again.

I was part of a team that brought them joy and got paid back with a hundred times as much. Right now, I feel on top of the world.