TAMPA — Deve Vilsenat's 2-year-old body would not allow her to run and play with other children without getting winded. Sick since infancy, she was hospitalized four times.
Her father, woodworker Michelet Vilsenat, spent all his money seeking help for his daughter, but the small Haitian island of La Gonave didn't have the doctors or facilities to treat her.
On Thursday, with the help of humanitarian groups and medical workers, Deve got a chance to be a child.
Surgeons at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital repaired a blood vessel near Deve's heart that had failed to close normally after birth. The condition, called patent ductus arteriosus, results in abnormal blood flow and can lead to heart failure.
Left untreated, Deve most likely would not have survived childhood, surgeon Dr. Jeff Jacobs said.
The hole in the little girl's blood vessel was so large that an initial attempt to plug it was scrapped, and Jacobs operated.
It took the surgeon an hour to repair the opening, successfully capping off a journey that began months ago when a doctor doing humanitarian work in Haiti learned of her plight.
A local non-profit group, Help Brings Hope For Haiti, arranged for a plane owned by a retired South Tampa businessman to fly Deve and her father to America after the pilot dropped off medical supplies in Haiti.
Father and daughter, who have been living in a tent because their home was destroyed by the earthquake, arrived last Friday. Deve's mother and 5-year-old brother stayed behind.
A local Rotary group, which runs the hospital's Gift of Life program, took care of the paperwork, adding Deve to a list of more than 120 children around the world who have undergone free, lifesaving heart surgery at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital since 1996.
Deve's surgery cost about $20,000, said Heidi Hess, a pediatric nurse practitioner who runs Gift of Life. The clinical team donated their service, and the local Rotary chapter will donate $5,000 to the hospital. It's a relatively small price to pay, considering past surgeries have cost up to $200,000, Hess said.
For the family, no amount of money could express their appreciation.
After emerging from surgery, Deve wrapped her fingers around her father's hand and whispered, "Papa."
With moist eyes, her father said through a translator: "We can't ever repay you. Hopefully when you get to heaven, God will have a star for you."
Deve and her father will remain in Tampa for about two more weeks with a host family until she heals completely from surgery.
Jacobs said situations like Deve's remind him why he became a doctor. Deve should not need any more surgeries or suffer any more effects.
"She's basically a normal kid now," Jacobs said. "She's going to go back to Haiti and be a little girl and she's going to get to grow up."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.