Reprinted with permission of North County News © 2007 All Rights Reserved.
By Danny Lopriore
Wendy Harrington and her 5-year-old daughter Cailee welcomed Julia Denis and her 8-year-old daughter Dencia at Kennedy Airport in January. Dencia has since had successful heart surgery sponsored in part by the Peekskill Rotary Club.
Julia Denis holds her 8-year-old daughter Dencia on her lap, rubs her back, and smiles.
Mother and daughter are lounging on a cushy couch in the comfortable and welcoming Harrington home in Yorktown Heights a few days following Dencia’s open heart surgery.
“She just fell asleep, but when she’s up she keeps me busy,” Julia Denis says of her precocious daughter. “It’s good to know she will be able to do the things other children do now.”
Dencia, a round-faced, smiling young lady who hails from St. Lucia, eventually opens her eyes and begins conversing with Wendy and Tom Harrington, members of the Peekskill Rotary Club who have opened their home to the Denis girls while Dencia had her surgery and recuperation. The interaction seems as natural as it would if the Harringtons were Dencia’s uncle and aunt or family members.
“We’re pretty close already,” Wendy Harrington said. “We were ready for this, somehow. We were at a Rotary meeting last December and they asked in someone would volunteer to host Julia and Dencia while they were here for the surgery. It just seemed like the opportunity was there for us.”
A New Extended Family
The Harringtons, of chilly, wintery Yorktown Heights, met the Denises, of tropical, sunny St. Lucia, one of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, at Kennedy Airport on January 15. A weary and expectant Julia said she was immediately comfortable when she met her hosts.
“I didn’t know what they looked like and they didn’t know what we looked like,” Julia Denis said. “I thought, what will I look for? Will I find them?
The Harrington’s 5-year-old, Cailee, a student at the French Hill Elementary School, made a sign welcoming the Denis girls and the artwork had its desired effect.
“I saw the sign and knew it was for us,” Julia said. “I’ve been so comfortable here. (Harringtons) have been wonderful.”
Comfortable, but cold.
“Julia hasn’t been outdoors much and she wore a hat and coat indoors the first day or so,” Wendy Harrington said. “We’re hoping to get her outdoors soon, but right now she’s making sure Dencia doesn’t do anything to bother the surgery.”
Julia, who has seven children back home in St. Lucia, said she misses her family but knows the recovery after Dencia surgery requires her to be “watching her” most of the time.
She gets into things,” Julia said. “We just want to be sure she is okay.
A Life-Changing Surgery
Dencia’s surgery, which was sponsored by the Rotary Club’s “Gift of Life” program, included repair to a “hole” in Dencia’s heart and the repair of a heart valve. The birth defect had caused Dencia breathing and other related problems all her life.
“She would run for 30 seconds and then be unable to breathe,” Julia Denis said. “Now, we expect her to be able to do things she could not do. She can even go to school full time.”
Dencia and her mother were welcomed by the Peekskill club at the Thursday Rotary Club lunch meeting before the surgery on January 24. The Westchester Medical Center team of Dr. Suvro Sett, surgeon, and Dr. Paul Woolf, cardiologist, carried out the successful surgery to close the hole and repair a valve at the Maria Ferari Children’s Hospital in White Plains.
Commenting on the “Gift of Life” program, the President of the Peekskill Rotary Club, Sibyl Canaan, said, “By helping sponsor and host children in need such as Dencia, we are giving our future citizens a new lease on life and our future ambassadors of goodwill the gift of good health.
“These families are given hope and their child’s future is almost miraculously restored – it’s a wonderful tribute to humanity and love, and truly fits the Rotary goal of building bridges of friendship and peace around the world. And we are very grateful to Wendy and Tom for sharing their home and their love to help restore the health of this little girl.”
Thirty Years of Giving
The “Gift of Life” program began in 1974 when the Manhasset Rotary Club, in Long Island, New York responded to a request from the Kampala Rotary Club in Uganda to help a five-year undergo a lifesaving open-heart surgery. Since that date, over 1,500 children from more than 30 countries throughout the world, including the United States, have been given another lease on life through the miracle of open heart surgery all donated by the generosity of Rotary members and hundreds of volunteers, plus the doctors, nurses and staffs of participating hospitals.
In an effort to reduce time and travel costs for serious heart patients, new “Gift of Life” programs have been initiated in hospitals in Egypt, India, Africa and the Philippines.
In 1994, the Eastchester Rotary Club with the help of Dr. Michael Gewitz, chief of the Pediatrics at New York Medical College, met with and convinced the officials of the Westchester County Medical Center to become a participating hospital, and since then, the new Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital performs these operations at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, and also the Montefiore Children’s Hospital in the Bronx. Each of these hospitals has generously volunteered to perform 12 such operations each year, for which the Rotary clubs of District 7230 provide $6,000 for the open-heart surgery.
This is a mere fraction of the true cost, and this lifesaving surgery is made possible only because of the generous contribution by the medical teams involved who volunteer cardiologists, surgeons, nurses and other dedicated members of the hospitals’ staffs. Each year, “Gift of Life” holds a dinner dance each year to raise funds and recognize the tremendous volunteer effort that goes into this program.
Home Sweet Home
Dencia, who also has Down Syndrome, attends the Dunnottar School, which has been the lead sponsor in getting the surgery done. The school’s therapist Elaine Clement initiated the search to help Dencia.
“We are so thankful to everyone in St. Lucia, especially the school,” Julia Denis said. “If it weren’t for the school, Dencia would not have had this opportunity. And so many thanks to the Rotary Club and the Harringtons and everyone for being so giving.”
For Dencia, who has a special affinity for computers and having her photo taken, memories of her life-saving visit to America are already being forged.
“Here are some photos of Dencia playing in the snow,” Tom Harrington said as Dencia looked at the growing album of the Denis’s stay with the Harringtons. “Look Dencia, there’s your name in the snow.”
“My name – snow,” Dencia said as she pointed to the photos and smiled. “I feel good.”
Cailee, who has bonded with her new “sister”, said she was happy to have a new friend and a chance to help someone in need.
“It is very fun to have them here because I love to play with Dencia. I am glad that she had the operation so she can play better. I am glad that Rotary picked us.”