Volunteers & Donations Help Afflicted Child
Eight year-old Natalia Niño isn’t hoping for toys this Christmas. When asked just a month after open-heart surgery what she’d like under the tree, the charismatic third-grader simply replied, “Nada.” She explained that enjoying good health really was enough. Natalia’s brief biography and how she came to receive medical care in Oklahoma are the kind of seasonal marvel that even Scrooge would have to concede.
A citizen of the Mexican state of Chiapas, Natalia lives in the dusty capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez with her mother, Rosario Vega. A divorcée who supports three children with a roadside sandwich shop in Barrio Guadalupano, Vega continually sought extra pocket money with the sales of shoes, handicrafts, silver pendants and miscellany over the lunch counter. More than supplemental income, Vega’s specific purpose was to set aside for the major operation she knew could save her youngest daughter’s life.
Natalia had been diagnosed with malnutrition and dehydration at seven months, and a form of complex cyanotic congenital heart disease was discovered during a routine follow-up exam. She had surgery at age 2 with the financial backing of limited insurance from a pediatric government-sponsored program, but local authorities warned that the toddler would not survive another two years without more operations. Tests revealed that Natalia was able to process only 59 percent of average oxygen intake, and she struggled to keep up with activities like dance lessons at school. Vega pinched pesos and watched her daughter’s energy diminish while neighborhood peers jumped rope or kicked soccer balls.
Despite doctors’ predictions that Natalia wouldn’t reach her fifth birthday, she was attending school in the afternoons and helping her mother at the sandwich stand when a volunteer medical team from Edmond’s Crossings Community Church appeared in June. The team’s nurses immediately recognized the cardiac irregularity and arranged for an appointment with a specialist, who confirmed that three months would be Natalia’s maximum life expectancy without treatment.
Tom Sacchieri, a parishioner of Shartel Church of God, sister organization to the Crossings Community ministry, attended the referral and saw no choice but to secure Natalia’s treatment in his home state. He immediately went to work on an emergency B1 visa, aided in international relations by Congressman Tom Cole and his secretary Mona Taylor. Sacchieri and his friend and fellow church member Don Bell agreed to assume medical costs, airfare and all other expenses.
Mother and daughter arrived Sept. 21, and Natalia underwent heart catheterization and a four-hour procedure at OU Medical Center a week later. The Oklahoma Children’s Heart Center head surgeon Dr. Chris Knott-Craig and associate professor of pediatrics Dr. Kent E. Ward both waived personal fees. The total cost of the operation topped $30,000, half of which was raised by private donations. Sacchieri and Bell provided the remainder, and divided her recuperation between their own homes with the constant supervision of their wives and children.
“When (Natalia) came here, she was using a wheelchair, but she won’t be going back in one,” Sacchieri said. Already walking within a few days of her release, Natalia and her mother went back to Mexico six weeks later. Her outlook is positive with only routine monitoring expected.
Natalia will spend Christmas at her family’s home in Tuxtla. Pressed to name another gift she especially wants this year, a shy smile crept across her face: “Mi uniforme. My school uniform.” Natalia also declared she’d like to be a doctor when she grows up.