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THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

(Final edited text not provided for the electronic library. Please see microfilm.)

A Bolivian family from a village high in the Andes came to St. Petersburg to save a desperately ill child. Their struggles to adapt to this unfamiliar culture have brought help from a new extended family here.

They live, all five of them, in one room. Two double beds, one bathroom, a window overlooking the roof of another building. Barbie dolls, Pokemon cards and board games are stacked in the corner. Clothing hangs from a single rod near the door.

These cramped quarters have been home for more than a year. Nearly everything in the room was donated. This family lives by the grace of others, supported by people whose language they can barely speak.

When the children are getting ready for school in the morning, they stand in line for the shower. The parents sleep in one bed, the three kids in the other _ just as they did in Bolivia. Those are about the only ways in which this place is just like home.

"It's difficult, but necessary," says Elvira Ojeda, 36, in Spanish.

Ojeda arrived in St. Petersburg on Christmas Day 1999, with her critically ill son Hector, whose family calls him Mael. She moved into a seventh-floor room at Ronald McDonald House, a couple of blocks from All Children's Hospital. The house is a low-cost residence where out-of-town parents of All Children's patients can stay while their youngsters are treated.

Hector, 9, has two life-threatening blood disorders. A few months ago, during chemotherapy, he was bald. Now he has thick chocolate-brown hair again. He calls the birthmark on his forehead "God's thumbprint."

Hector's family believes in the power of prayer. It was prayer, after all, that brought them from their home high in the Andes Mountains to a place where the land is flat and people are generous.

"It is a great miracle we are here," says Felipe Ojeda, 41. "Thanks to so many good people."

Hector Ojeda fell ill in October 1999. His mother noticed that bruises on his body weren't healing. He started bleeding from his nose, mouth and rectum. The Ojedas took their son to a doctor in the small town of Oruro, where they lived. The boy was rushed to a hospital in La Paz, the capital, 150 miles away.

Hector spent 2{ months in the hospital. His parents were told he had aplastic anemia. He would need frequent blood transfusions and a bone marrow transplant.

The Ojedas, like many Bolivians, have no health insurance. They earned $10 a day selling homemade meat pies called empanadas.

They quickly ran out of money to pay for Hector's treatment. At first they persuaded pharmaceutical companies to donate free drug samples. Then they began selling off their possessions, including a car Felipe sometimes used as a taxi to earn extra money. They stopped buying meat and other groceries.

By November the Ojedas were knocking on strangers' doors to ask for help. They persuaded TV and radio stations to let them make their plea on the air. Hector's doctors, meanwhile, advised them not to get their hopes up.

One day in early December, Elvira Ojeda was returning home after praying in a church. As she passed the ornate gates of the Bolivian vice president's residence, she impulsively begged the guard to let her speak to someone inside. She was in tears.

Ojeda was told to return the next day, with her husband. When they did, Felipe Ojeda was ushered into the office of the vice president's wife.

Also in the office that day, helping with a charity project, was Irma Canedo Bridgeford, a Bolivian native who lives in St. Petersburg. She heard the story of Ojeda's deathly ill son. She thought of her friend, Jerry Barbosa, another Bolivian native, who is the medical director of hematology/oncology at All Children's.

Two weeks later, using tickets donated by American Airlines, Elvira Ojeda and her younger son flew to Florida. Neither had been out of Bolivia before. They spoke no English.

They arrived at Tampa International Airport and came straight to the hospital, where Hector was admitted. The hospital and Barbosa offered to treat the boy for free.

The next few months were lonely and frightening. Despite blood transfusions and chemotherapy, Hector got worse. He developed another problem, a preleukemic condition called myelodysplasia. Mother and son regularly called home, using phone cards donated by AT&T, but Hector still pined for his father and siblings.

Elvira Ojeda tried to ease his homesickness by cooking familiar foods. She also kept busy knitting sweaters with traditional Bolivian patterns. She made friends with Lupi Coffin, a medical technologist in the All Children's clinical laboratory who volunteers as a Spanish translator for patients who don't speak English.

Coffin got friends to donate cash and clothing for Elvira and Hector, who had arrived in Florida with only one change of clothes each. All Children's social worker Lynda Walker helped them deal with the uncertainty of their situation.

As Hector's treatment dragged into months, it became obvious that he would be much happier _ and perhaps healthier _ with the rest of his family nearby. Donna Young, director of Ronald McDonald House, wrote to the Children's Wish Foundation, which helps grant the wishes of children with life-threatening diseases.

Last August, the rest of the Ojeda family _ Felipe, Nestor, 13, and Susana, 7 _ flew to Tampa, courtesy of the foundation. A tearful reunion took place at Ronald McDonald House.

"They make no demands on us. They don't ask for anything," Young says. "And everything you do for them, they are just so grateful."

Every morning a school bus stops at the front door of Ronald McDonald House. Susana hugs her mother and jumps on board. It takes only a few minutes to get to her first-grade classroom at Campbell Park Elementary School.

Half an hour later, another bus comes for Nestor. He's in the eighth grade at Hopkins Middle School.

Hector often misses school. Sometimes he's not feeling well enough; other days he's having a treatment in the hematology clinic at All Children's.

Both Felipe and Elvira sweep floors and do landscaping chores around the grounds, trying to repay their free stay. Every so often they cook empanadas for all the residents in the communal kitchen. They've become close to Young and other staff members at Ronald McDonald House.

"We have a family of the heart here," says Felipe.

When they arrived, several family members needed glasses and dental work. Lupi Coffin made the arrangements. Visionworks and Lenscrafters donated eye exams and new glasses; St. Petersburg dentist Steven Steakley provided free dental care.

Other people donated fast food gift certificates, so the children could discover the joys of Chicken McNuggets. Someone else paid for Felipe to take English classes. William Rosas at Catholic Charities is helping the family keep their visas current.

Barbosa, the doctor treating Hector, said the boy needs ongoing medical care. So the Ojedas must stay here; how long, no one is sure.

Felipe Ojeda recently returned to Bolivia and then re-entered the United States on a visa that will allow him to apply for a work permit. He hopes to find a job in welding or construction, maybe as a plumber or painter.

Young and Coffin are helping the family make preparations to move out of Ronald McDonald House. They'd like to find an apartment or small house, within walking distance of the hospital or on a bus line. They're hoping a landlord might offer the family one or two months free rent as they get on their feet financially.

The Ojedas' gratitude is mixed with sadness. Elvira misses Bolivia and her 21-year-old sister, Reina, who remained at their home. They all worry about Hector.

"If we were dealing only with aplastic anemia, his chances of surviving would be 75 percent," said Barbosa. "But with the complication of the myelodysplasia, his chances are only about 30 percent."

A bone marrow transplant would improve the odds. None of Hector's siblings tested as a good match, according to Barbosa, so they are looking for a match from the national bone marrow registry. Hector's ethnic background complicates the search.

The boy receives transfusions of red blood cells and platelets twice a week at All Children's. When he's well enough, he attends third grade classes at Campbell Park. A home tutor visits him regularly at Ronald McDonald House.

All three children have learned English rapidly. They're happy to be in the United States. Every so often, they go swimming in the pool at Barbosa's house. They also love to visit "the library," as they call bookstores.

One recent afternoon Lupi Coffin took Elvira and the children to Borders. Susana and Hector headed straight to the children's section, where they sprawled on a carpeted platform to read. Hector pored over Pokemon books and Susana read the Easter story aloud, in perfect English.

Nestor, meanwhile, leafed through books on astronomy, aviation and physics, then picked up a biography of Einstein. Elvira stopped near the front of the store to listen to jazz on headphones. Then she found the shelves of foreign language books and sat down to look at one: Ingles en 20 Lecciones (English in 20 Lessons).

There was no money to pay for anything; they would have to enjoy the books only in the store.

"The things they appreciate so much," said Coffin, shaking her head, "things that we take for granted."

A plea to work

Here is an excerpt from Felipe Ojeda's letter to immigration officials considering his application for a work permit. It is translated from Spanish.

I have had to leave everything behind in my country in order to be at my son's side, supporting him through pain, both physical and emotional, caused by his illness. . . . We arrived at this country thanks to the immense collaboration of Children's Wish Foundation who had the grand gentility to grant the dream of a sick child who wanted to be united with his family. The fact that we are a humble family of little financial means was the only reason that kept us from being with my small son who needed us so.

. . . I see myself obligated, distinguished sir, to request your help in obtaining permission to work. Working, I will be able to provide food, housing and medical care for my family and be able to live with dignity.

Sincerely,

Your servant,

Felipe Ojeda Oporto

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