What started out as a happy holiday visit to the United States to introduce 18-month-old Monserrat Quej to her Storm Lake relatives has turned into a desperate fight for the toddler's life.
Gracie Vrieze, veteran community services officer for the Storm Lake Police Department, was looking forward to the visit of cousin and god-daughter Mercedes, coming from Mexico to spend Christmas in Storm Lake, and meeting her two daughters, 5-year-old Anna and little sister Monserrat for the first time.
After a short time here, the family noticed that young Monserrat did not seem like her normal self. The smiles were fading. She was sleeping much more than usual and seemed listless. On the 23rd, the child was baptized, but wasn't showing any improvement. On Christmas day, the family took Monserrat to the local emergency room. An air ambulance was summoned to take the child to a larger hospital in Omaha. There she was treated for flu and respiratory problems, but the doctor had worse news - Monserrat needs a liver transplant.
At birth, Monserrat had been underweight and after some mis-diagnoses, was found to be suffering from biliary artesia, a blockage in the ducts that carry a liquid called bile from the liver to the gallbladder. The condition can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which can be fatal. At one point, a Mexican surgeon opened her up to perform a liver bypass, but when confronted with a damaged organ and swelling, he gave up and sewed her back up without attempting the procedure, Gracie said.
At 18 months, Monserrat weighs only 14 pounds. Her stomach is now swollen and distended from her condition.
The family has no U.S. medical insurance that can be used to help her. Transplant surgery could cost $500,000 to $1 million, and the hospital has declined to do the operation without payment up-front.
"The hospital said that the only way they can help her is for the mother to give up the baby, leave her there, and and return to Mexico," Gracie said. "I don't think that's right. Anna misses her sister terribly. What is her mother going to tell her; that she gave up her sister for adoption to get an operation done?"
Gracie tried to turn to an Omaha TV station for help, but they weren't interested in the story.
A "Prayers for Monserrat" Facebook site was put online, and Gracie hopes to arrange a fund drive or event in Storm Lake to help the mother and her children. She will appeal to hospitals around the country to see if there is any help available to get the needed transplant surgery.
For Mercedes, the visit has turned into a nightmare, but not one that is without hope.
She cannot return to Mexico without her child, and has little confidence that doctors there have the expertise or interest to save Monserrat. She is not fluent in English and does not know where to turn. For now she is remaining at her daughter's bedside in Omaha. They will likely try to make a new life for themselves in Storm Lake for the foreseeable future.
"At least here there is hope," she says. "If Monserrat does not give up, we do not give up either."
She firmly believes everything happens for a purpose. "We were brought here for a reason - there is a reason this happened when we were here, instead of in Mexico, where there would be no help. This happened on Christmas - that has to have a meaning."
Monserrat's sister Anna is starting in a pre-kindergarten class in Storm Lake and doing her best to learn English. Gracie takes Anna to see her mother and sister whenever she can, but with her own husband between jobs, cash grows scarce. An iPod is used in between - Monserrat can see Anna on the little screen and chortles happily - those in Storm Lake get no image but can hear the child's voice.
Each night, Anna prays as she has been taught: "Please God, don't take my little sister away."
As for Monserrat, she endures. She cannot stand for long, her swollen stomach too much for her tiny frame to support, the problems inside her body cavity inflicting two painful hernias and vericose veins, one of which burst and bled inside her. Because her stomach is not growing, she feels no hunger - she will need a feeding tube and IV drip to nourish her when she returns to Storm Lake, until further medical help can be found.
"She's still a very happy, very cute girl. She loves having her long hair cared for," Gracie says. "She speaks in a whisper, one word at a time: 'Mother.' 'Anna.' She claps when she is excited, and she loves to sing - especially a song she learned from her older sister about chasing lions. It has a line that says, 'I am not afraid... I am not afraid.'"
At birth, doctors said Monserrat would not live past her first birthday, but she is a pure fighter, Gracie says.
"Now we can only keep trying and hope for another miracle."
Editor's note: Anyone with medical contacts or ideas on how to help Monserrat receive the transplant surgery she needs may contact Gracie Vrieze at 712-299-4283 or firstname.lastname@example.org