Zanick Masters is a typical 1-year-old. He’s curious, playful and making up words as he explores the world around him, but just two weeks ago, he was fighting for his life at a hospital in Jamaica.
During his first few weeks of life, Zanick struggled to breathe. His mother, Nicole Box, 33, took him to a hospital in Spanish Town, Jamaica.
“At that point, I was being asked if my child had ever been blue – blue lips, blue fingers?” Box said. “They didn’t tell me anything yet.”
Doctors kept the then 3-month-old for two weeks to run tests and found evidence of a congenital heart defect.
To get more details, doctors sent the family to a specialist for an echocardiogram, and discovered Zanick had ALCAPA (anomalous left coronary artery from the pulmonary artery).
The left coronary artery, which carries blood to the heart muscle, is supposed to begin from the aorta. Zanick’s began at the pulmonary.
“The heart is just kind of starving for oxygen,” said Jane Hanafin, senior director of the Heart Institute at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. “Normally, that artery would have blood that has a lot of oxygen in it, but because it’s coming off the pulmonary, the heart is not getting the oxygen-rich blood it needs.”
Children with ALCAPA typically do not grow; they very easily get respiratory infections, and as time goes on, their lungs can be negatively affected.
“If they go too long living with the defect, surgery won’t help. It will eventually result in death,” Hanafin said.
Some children with ALCAPA live to early adulthood, while others do not make it to their first birthday, depending on the severity.
Zanick needed surgery immediately.
The family traveled three hours to Bustamante Hospital for Children in Kingston, Jamaica.
“There wasn’t any way they could help him,” Box said.
Since doctors could not perform ALCAPA surgery in Jamaica, they said they would work to find someone who could.
Two months later, Box was told the medical mission group the hospital had been working with from the United Kingdom fell through. The surgery was too complicated.
Box was told her only option was to try to find help overseas. So, she immediately created a Go Fund Me account and started calling hospitals in America. She got through to Boston Children’s Hospital.
The estimate for the surgery was $264,000.
Orlando Health’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children offered a discounted rate of $164,000.
“I was not able to pay that,” Box said. Meanwhile, her Go Fund Me account had only reached $1,300.
Box took to the internet, making a plea in the Jamaica Star, a print and digital publication known as the people’s paper.
Hours after the article published, Box received a call at 11 that night from Dr. William Foster, known as the Good Samaritan of cardiology in Jamaica.
Over the years, Foster has helped hundreds of patients get to America, where they can get the lifesaving surgeries they need.
In Memphis, Foster works with the local chapter of Gift of Life International, which works with Rotary clubs around the world to save children diagnosed with congenital heart defects.
Founded by the Rotary Club of Memphis East, Gift of Life Mid-South has helped save the lives of 93 children from 12 countries since partnering with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in 2007.
“In the age of the internet now, they can find you quicker than ever,” said Bill Pickens, who founded the chapter with Bill Schrader, otherwise known as Bill No. 1 and Bill No. 2.
Foster helped triage Zanick until Gift of Life Mid-South could get him to Le Bonheur.
On April 1, Box got an email informing her she was headed to Memphis. Le Bonheur had accepted Zanick’s case.
“I responded in shock and happiness,” she said.
Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital reviews cases the local rotary club finds to determine whether the child is an appropriate candidate for surgery.
“What we’re looking for is if the issues can be resolved with one surgery,” Hanafin said. “Sometimes, if a child does not have their heart surgery as an infant, there are things that happen that make the heart inoperable. It is too late.”
Some children’s hearts can be repaired using a catheter, but at 13 months old, Zanick required full open-heart surgery.
Heart surgeon Dr. Sandeep Sainathan performed the nearly four-hour operation on May 20.
Collected among the items in Zanick’s diaper bag was a clear plastic bag full of yarns and strings. Box likes to knit. It helps clear her head among the stress, she said.
“She’s probably made 12 hats since she’s been here,” said Gift of Life Mid-South volunteer Joanie Bergstrom, a member of the Rotary Club of Olive Branch.
It will be six months before Zanick is fully recovered.
“We are glad it has gone so well because he’s really a little bit older to have this done than we would like, so we are very pleased that he’s done so well,” Hanafin said.
‘More than a blessing’
Once Le Bonheur agrees the child is fit for surgery, Gift of Life works with an agency in the home country to arrange transportation.
“The hospitals and doctors can do the healing, but they don’t have the logistics to get them here, get them home and provide for the family while they’re here,” Pickens said.
Gift of Life Mid-South covers the cost through donations and volunteers provide transportation, meals and activities, such as trips to the zoo or children’s museum, during a family’s hospital stay.
“A lot of the people who come don’t speak English,” Pickens said. “Imagine if you are in a foreign country and you had a child with a life-threatening condition, and you didn’t speak the language or have any friends, it would be pretty traumatic.”
Gift of Life Mid-South also pays what Hanafin calls a “good faith effort” to Le Bonheur to cover part of the surgery, mainly the physician charges.
In Zanick’s case, American Airlines donated the cost of the airfare and Box covered the taxes.
When Box and Zanick arrived at Memphis International Airport, a group of Gift of Life Mid-South volunteers was there to greet them.
At that point, Box did not know about Gift of Life Mid-South or that she’d be staying at FedExFamilyHouse. She thought she’d be sleeping in a chair outside Zanick’s hospital room.
“We don’t feel like we are away from home. We feel extremely accepted here,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t expect this. They are like my two grandfathers,” Box said of Bill No. 1 and Bill No. 2.
Dr. Jerry Midyett, a dentist at Schilling Farms Dental, volunteered to perform dental work for Box, and she was treated to a manicure at Gould’s Salon Spa.
“They are here to support us and sponsor us, everything that we’re doing – the stay, our hospital bill, everything,” Box said. “That’s more than a blessing. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s everything.”
To learn more about how to support Gift of Life Mid-South, visit GiftofLifeMidSouth.org.