“Wolf, wolf, are you there?” Josefat Lopez’s five sisters chanted in Spanish as they held hands and danced around the 3-year-old boy. “I’m brushing my teeth!” Josefat called back, his sightless eyes roaming as he listened to his sisters’ footfalls crunch on the drying corn. Soon he would run and catch them. If you had asked Josefat’s mother, Erlinda, six months ago, whether Josefat would be running and playing, she would have been hard-pressed to come up with an optimistic answer.
Josefat was born with myelomeningocele, the most serious type of spina bifida, which can damage parts of the spinal cord and the surrounding nerves. To his parents, Josefat looked like he was born with a large tumor on his back. By the time he was 2 years old, his parents had saved up enough money for the surgery and the eight-hour bus ride to a hospital in Tapachula, Mexico.
Josefat fared well after the surgery, and it seemed as though the operation was successful. But two weeks later, he woke up blind with cephalic fluid—the fluid around the brain—leaking from the spot where he had been operated on. Scared for their child, Josefat’s parents brought him to the local Partners In Health/Compañeros En Salud clinic, whose work is supported by Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. There, social service year physician Dr. Abelardo Vidaurreta immediately called the surgeon. “Something went wrong,” Dr. Vidaurreta remembers telling the surgeon, urging him to readmit Josefat immediately.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Erlinda recounted. “Where were we going to get the money to take him to Tuxtla again?
Once again the Lopez family packed up a few things, left their five girls under the care of a neighbor, and headed back to Tapachula. The surgeon, however, asked for 20,000 pesos (about $2,000) for a second surgery, a sum the family couldn’t afford. Josefat’s father called Dr. Vidaurreta. After talking to the social worker in the hospital, Dr. Vidaurreta arranged to transfer Josefat to Tuxtla, another large city, where he could be supported by PIH/CES directors Dr. Hugo Flores and Dr. Jafet Arrieta.
Under their supervision, Josefat had another surgery and the Lopez’s were sent home after a short hospital stay. While Josefat didn’t regain his sight, the second surgery remedied the other complications that lingered from the original surgery.
Unfortunately, Josefat’s struggles persisted. A few months after the surgery, the boy’s back became infected. Dr. Arrieta picked up the boy and his family in a big black truck with “Compañeros En Salud” printed on the side and drove them once again to the hospital in Tuxtla. “We didn’t know what to do,” Erlinda recounted. “Where were we going to get the money to take him to Tuxtla again? We’re poor, and my daughters were saying, ‘We don’t want you to go.’ But thank God the [CES] doctors came.”
The family spent three months in the hospital with their little boy before a healthy Josefat was once again sent home, this time for good.
PIH/CES has continued to work with Josefat, delivering primary care and making sure he recovers fully. During a recent checkup, Josefat and his mother roamed the clinic yard where they encountered a mango tree. “I’m going to climb!” cried Josefat, and with a little assistance, he scrambled up into the tree’s branches. “He’s good now,” Erlinda said. “He plays, walks, talks, eats, drinks. I have so much gratitude.”
Emma Goodstein has been collaborating with the PIH/CES team in Chiapas, Mexico since June 2012. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2010 with a degree in history and has since worked in various positions in health care in Portland and New York City. She will be entering Emory School of Medicine this fall.