Imagine waking up in a foreign country every morning for two months with the knowledge that today you’ll have to break your child’s hand.
This is what Maribel Puebla has had to endure four separate times since 2005. Two and a half years ago, she gave birth to her third child in the family’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador. Mateo was a beautiful, healthy baby boy — but he was born without fully formed digits on his right hand. In his culture, anyone with a visible disability is cruelly ostracized.
The Puebla family wanted every opportunity in the world for their youngest son. They researched world-class hand surgeons and found Dr. William Seitz at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. Dr. Seitz is in a league of his own when it comes to the intricate, complicated procedure of growing fingers.
At five months old, Mateo came to Cleveland with his parents for the first of many surgeries. Using bones, tissue and skin from his feet, Dr. Seitz began to build fingers for baby Mateo.
The surgery was a success, but the therapy required afterward is long and intense. Mateo must visit the Clinic’s physical therapy center in Beachwood several times a week over many months. On their first visit, Maribel walked up and down the streets of Cleveland in the rain, searching for a place to stay in an unfamiliar city. A good samaritan approached her in the storm and brought the family to the door of RMH.
Like many foreign patients at area medical facilities, the Pueblas had no idea that RMH even existed. The House offers temporary shelter for families whose children are receiving treatment at hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital and University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. At $20 a night, it’s an affordable alternative to hotel rooms, and it’s a place that offers most of the comforts of an actual home. The Puebla family has since stayed at the House three more times.
In the privacy of their room, Mirabel performs a heartbreaking daily task: She turns a screw in Mateo’s hand that breaks his four new fingers. Doing so creates scar tissue that allows the digits to grow longer and stronger. Mateo takes it all in stride; the thing that upsets him more than the pain is wearing a large foam mitten over his hand that prevents him from playing with his toys!
RMH allows children like Mateo to just be kids. In his own community, Mateo is treated differently, and although his surgery will allow him to better adapt, he is still looked upon as an outsider. At RMH, Mateo is just a toddling bundle of laughter running around the hallways, singing to Barney videos or spinning until he falls over with dizziness. He has the opportunity to be a toddler and enjoy all the wonder and merriment that come with being 2 1/2, all while receiving first-class medical attention and the support of the other families, volunteers and staff of the House.
The most beautiful part of Mateo’s story, however, is a love story. During his most recent stay, Mateo met Hannah, the 3-year-old daughter of Tiffany and Jason Evans. The family, from Grand Rapids, Mich., had recently adopted Isaac, a premature baby who needed a lot of love and medical attention from the top-ranked Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. Hannah is the healthy big sister who needed companionship during the long waiting periods at RMH. Mateo and Hannah bonded instantly, although neither of them spoke much — and when they did, it was in different languages. The two have become inseparable, and the mothers have formed a bond as well, proving that comfort, hope, friendship and family have no boundaries or barriers.
Mateo will return to Cleveland and RMH in May of 2008 for what the family hopes is his last treatment. It’s a special story about a wonderful family — but there are 37 rooms at RMH and 36 more stories at any one time within the walls of the House that Love Built.