Alyson Alfaro of Belize awaits brain surgery under the watchful eye of his mother, Elia Alfaro, in Staten Island University Hospital North. Alfaro's 11-hour surgery, provided through Healing Hands Abroad, repaired a condition that caused a hemorrhage in his brain.(Photo Courtesy of Alyson Alfaro)
Staten Islanders extend a 'Healing Hand' and save a life
By Staten Island Advance
on August 13, 2013 at 11:25 AM, updated August 13, 2013 at 11:30 AM
By Keeley Ibrahim
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The life-threatening condition that brought Alyson Alfaro to New York this summer ended with very positive results — from surgery to a trip to Times Square — due to the generosity of Staten Islanders.
Alfaro suffered from a severe headache one December night in 2012 while sleeping.
“It was the worst headache I’d ever had,” said Alfaro, who lives in San Jose Succotz in Belize, a small Central American country, where medical care is scarce.
No normal headache, it signaled a mild stroke that left him unable to speak. When Alfaro was taken to Guatemala City for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), tests showed he suffered from a brain aneurysm.
“I didn’t know what to do or where to get the money [to pay for future treatments],” said Elia Alfaro, his mother. That’s when Mrs. Alfaro sought help from Margaret Juan, an English nurse who saw the need for primary care in the Cayo District of western Belize where the Alfaros live.
In 27 years, Nurse Juan has built a clinic that has expanded into six buildings where thousands of Belizeans from the surrounding areas are cared for. Contributing to the success of her clinics is a worldwide network of health care providers and groups similar to the Staten Island-based Healing Hands Abroad.
Dr. Michael Lacqua, a plastic surgeon, is the founder and executive director of the non-profit organization, which began helping families like the Alfaros almost two years ago. It was through Nurse Juan that Dr. Lacqua first heard of Alfaro’s diagnosis.
The mission statement of Healing Hands Abroad, as stated on its website, is to provide free, high-quality, and specialized surgical care to men, women, and children in underserved communities in the United States and abroad.
“Our organization is funded, pretty much, by donations from the people here on Staten Island,” said Dr. Lacqua. “That’s one thing I think is kind of interesting. [Healing Hands Abroad] has only survived on what we call ‘Friends and Family’ donations, which is all Staten Islanders.”
Since the groups founding, he said, he and his organization have traveled mainly to Belize.
Through Dr. Lacqua’s medical network, he spoke with Dr. Edwin Chang, chief neurosurgeon at Staten Island University Hospital, who agreed to repair what was diagnosed as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a tangle of blood vessels that creates an abnormal blood flow. Instead of oxygen in the arteries transferring to the capillaries and into the tissues, it bypasses the capillaries and goes directly to the veins.
With a surgeon lined up to repair the AVM, Healing Hands Abroad was able to sponsor the Alfaros’ trip to the U.S.
“It’s exciting because when you go [to Belize] most of what they need — for them it’s specialized care, but for us it’s run-of-the-mill,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to have the funds to invite them to be brought [to the U.S.].”
In addition to arranging medical care for Alfaro, Dr. Lacqua and his family opened their home to the Alfaros during their three-week stay in the U.S.
According to Dr. Lacqua, surgery similar to the procedure done by Dr. Chang totals around $80,000. It was a procedure that Dr. Chang was more than happy to perform pro bono.
“It’s the satisfaction of doing something helpful [for] someone who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” said Dr. Chang. “I didn’t think too much about it.”
According to Dr. Chang, only one percent of the worldwide population is diagnosed with an AVM, which he says is congenital and non-genetic. He added that 50 percent of patients suffering from an AVM may also suffer from a brain hemorrhage, which is what caused Alfaro’s headache and what Dr. Lacqua calls a “ticking time bomb.”
According to Dr. Chang, an AVM can be fatal or result in a vegetative state for the patient, which he says is “worse than death.”
Dr. Chang performed Alfaro’s 11-hour surgery at Staten Island University Hospital North on July 12.
Chocolate and Coke were among his first requests after surgery, and it wasn’t long before he was having his photo taken in Times Square. “I was so happy to go. There were so many lights!” Alfaro said.
On July 26, his 21st birthday, Alfaro and his mother returned home where he will continue his last year at Sacred Heart College as an accounting major.
He is understandably grateful to Dr. Chang, Dr. Laqua and Healing Hands Abroad.
However, he does admit to some impatience. On the advice of the doctors, he must wait a year before returning to playing soccer. But in the spirit of paying it forward, he says he’ll coach young players until he’s able to get on the field again.