Filipino Woman Receives A Gift Of Life

by Kobakila News

Last January, Diane Beltran discovered the organization Gift of Life International online and filled out an application. Her neighbors in the Philippines told her it was a hoax.
From left, Dr. Mariano Brizzio, a cardiac surgeon at The Valley Hospital, and Mario Lopez de Leon Jr., general counsel of the Philippine Consulate in New York City, check on Diane Beltran as she recovers from open-heart surgery.
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From left, Dr. Mariano Brizzio, a cardiac surgeon at The Valley Hospital, and Mario Lopez de Leon Jr., general counsel of the Philippine Consulate in New York City, check on Diane Beltran as she recovers from open-heart surgery.

“You’ll see when you get to America,” they said.

But because Beltran did not listen to them, she is now recuperating from triple-valve replacement open-heart surgery at The Valley Hospital.

A few days after her seven-hour operation last Wednesday, Beltran was in pain and it hurt to breathe, but she was happy.

“I am very, very happy, because they give me a chance to live longer,” she said in clear English from a seat beside her hospital bed.

Her mother rubbed her back as Mario Lopez de Leon Jr., consul general of the Philippine Consulate in New York City, clutched her tiny hands in his. She began to cry.

Diagnosed with rheumatic heart valve disease when she was about 10 years old but unable to afford treatment, the now-28-year-old weighed 85 pounds when she arrived at Valley.

If it hadn’t been for Dr. Mariano Brizzio, a cardiac surgeon who volunteered to operate for free, she never would have received the surgery. Brizzio estimated the costs for the surgery at more than $60,000 in the United States, including the cost of the replacement valves, valued at $6,000 to $7,000 each.

According to its representatives, Gift of Life International is a worldwide Rotary service program that operates through 70 district programs which accomplish their missions through committees in 56 local rotaries. The Paramus Rotary Club coordinated Beltran’s arrival in America and arranged her surgery.

After being approached by the Paramus Rotary, the hospital waived the majority of its fees. The club gave Valley a $6,000 donation, and the medical technology company Medtronic donated all three valves.

Jennifer Padolina, a Paramus Rotary Club Gift of Life Committee representative who is Filipino, was one of Beltran’s greeters at Newark Airport. The first thing that Beltran said to Padolina was that she planned to go back to school after her surgery.

At the hospital, Beltran said she would be studying finance and marketing.

De Leon was alerted to Beltran’s operation by Fair Lawn Sunrise Rotary Club President Nelsie Parrado, who is active in the Filipino community and a good friend of Padolina’s.

“This is really a very good program,” said De Leon, who spoke with Beltran and her mother in Tagalog, the Filipino language. “I’ve been told that [for] 10 years [Diane] can’t even go out of the house without assistance.”

Parrado noted that Beltran contacted many different humanitarian organizations, but only the Gift of Life Program was willing to help her.

“What I found so annoying was that her neighbors were saying, ‘Don’t believe, it’s a scam,’ but she persevered, thank God,” Parrado said.

Life-saving stories

Beltran’s story is just part of a broader fabric of life-saving stories that Gift of Life International has made possible during the course of its history. It is also one of many charitable acts that Valley has provided over the years.

Ray Hough, chairperson of the Gift of Life Program for Rotary District 7490, which includes Paramus, said that Gift of Life has historically worked primarily with children. More than 800 children from developing countries – including 300 from the Ukraine, and many others from countries such as the Philippines, Korea, Iraq, Haiti and Jamaica – have been aided by Gift of Life International’s district programs since 1975, Hough said.

Of that total, about 110 people have received surgery with the help of the Paramus Rotary Club’s Gift of Life Committee and various tri-state hospitals.

Unfortunately, Hough noted that the organization – which at one point was able to bring two dozen children to the United States in one year – recently had more difficulty finding hospitals ready to comply, because of the uncertainties brought on by new healthcare legislation and the economy.

Today, the program receives “five to 10” operation requests a month, said Hough, who arranged Beltran’s surgery and has helped numerous individuals since he began working with the organization 20 years ago.

“I wish I didn’t know [the number of applicants],” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not able to help as many kids as we would like.”

Yet the positive stories continue. Among those given aid was a 10-month-old Filipino baby brought to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson about two years ago when she was practically gray in color due to oxygen deprivation, Hough said.

He noted that the little girl is now “happy and healthy” – and her mother helped Beltran and her mother, Lourdita, get their visas for their first plane trip.

While Beltran’s surgery is just the second time Valley has worked with Gift of Life, it is part of a tradition of similar service at Valley.

Valley spokeswoman Maureen Curran Kleinman said that during the 15 years she has worked at Valley, at least one person from a developing country has been aided each year by Valley staff through various humanitarian organizations.

Valley physicians and nurses also will occasionally go abroad to serve with medical missions, she said.

However, aid often flies under the radar. Last year, a Haitian woman, whose face was partially crushed in the 2010 earthquake, was operated on by Dr. Joel Kopelman, an ophthalmic plastic surgeon at Valley. Curran Kleinman noted that while that woman’s story was highlighted in The Record, it was an anomaly.

“A lot go on that we don’t even know about,” she said.

Curran Kleinman added that she was unaware of Beltran’s presence in the hospital until the Philippine Consulate contacted her.

“It goes on quietly,” she said.

According to Hough, Beltran is the second adult to be aided by any U.S. hospital through Gift of Life. Last year, Brizzio, who specializes in adult cardiac surgery, also operated on the first adult aided through the Paramus Rotary’s Gift of Life Program committee, Miguel Ramirez Lazo, of Peru. Brizzio had asked the Gift of Life Committee to sponsor Lazo, who he encountered on a medical mission.

Beltran will likely be recuperating at Valley for the next couple months. When asked if she would have survived without being brought to Valley, Brizzio paused.

“Probably not,” he said.

For the last six years, Brizzio has been going abroad on annual medical missions with the organization CardioStart International. Many other Valley employees have accompanied him, he said, including anesthesiologist Dr. Jeffrey Levine.

Brizzio, who came to the U.S. from Argentina about 10 years ago, said some patients, including Beltran, need to be brought to a developed country to survive.

“She’s a very, very difficult case to do in a third-world country,” he said. “Diane’s one of those examples where we do bring patients over here to the U.S. where the equipment is available.”

Padolina called Brizzio one of Beltran’s “guardian angels.”

Beltran had to borrow about 50,000 pesos – more than $1,000 – to travel to the capital of Manila, about seven hours from her hometown, and pay for the passport materials for her trip to the United States, Padolina said.

The Paramus Rotary Club is trying to raise the funds that Beltran needs so she and her mother can “start a new life” without any debt related to the operation, Padolina said. Otherwise, it might take them “years” to pay it all back, she said.

Gift of Life Committee member Marty Diamond, who hosted Beltran and Lourdita at his home until her surgery, was a member of the group that came to see her a few days after her operation.

Asked for comment outside Beltran’s hospital room, Diamond became teary-eyed.

“I can’t. I’ll start crying,” he said. “Just to be associated with compassionate people like Dr. Brizzio and Valley Hospital and the Paramus Rotary is just really special. It’s an incredible feeling that you can be a small part of something so magnificent.”

Email: herzogl@northjersey.com

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