When Manise Casimer, an 8-year-old Haitian heart patient, visited the Marco Island Sunrise Rotary Club Tuesday morning, President Wanda Day and past President Stan Niemczyk were awestruck.
The two Rotarians had traveled to Tampa Sept. 27 to meet the child and set up heart surgery for her at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital. Casimer arrived in a wheelchair, strapped to an oxygen tank, and suffered a seizure in her first hours on U.S. soil. Day and Niemczyk were deeply concerned about her ability to survive open-heart surgery.
Casimer went into cardiac arrest three times before surgery. Doctors and staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital were so concerned that they began the open-heart procedure as an emergency, rather than waiting for the scheduled operation time. “She was so sick that I thought for sure we might lose her,” said Day. “Everyone was praying that she could survive the surgery.”
Manise’s operation came about from efforts of Gift of Life of Florida, a Rotary program that assists children who have life-threatening, but surgically correctable, heart problems and live in impoverished countries where care is unavailable. A Marco Island donor and the Marco Island Sunrise Rotary Club supplied the necessary funds to make the operation possible.
“We are grateful to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital for donating the staff and facility to make this program affordable,” said Steve Agius, chairman of Gift of Life for the Rotary 6960 District. Both Marco Island Rotary Clubs are part of that district.
Agius attended the Tuesday meeting and expressed his astonishment at how much Casimer had improved. “It was very touch-and-go for the first few days,” said Ronni Pruh, a volunteer nurse who drove from Wisconsin with her husband to act as Casimer’s guardian for her month-long recovery. “Before she came to the U.S., Manise hadn’t walked for most of her life. She lived in bed or a wheelchair and was on oxygen in the hospital for an entire year.”
After 10 days of recuperation, Casimer fared much better than anticipated. She was removed from life-assisting machines and attempted her first few steps before she left the hospital. By the time she arrived on Marco Island Tuesday, she was able to walk without assistance, laugh and share her smile with those around her. By Monday, she had been cleared by her doctors to return to Haiti, with her return flight planned for Wednesday.
“It’s a remarkable change,” said Niemczyk. “I would never have thought that she would do so well. It makes being a part of Rotary so great when we see firsthand the important work it does.”
During her stay at St. Joseph’s, Manise also was visited by Marco Islanders Tom Kirstein, his daughter, Katie, and Ewout DeVries. To Casimer’s great joy, Katie made a surprise visit to the Tuesday meeting to say good-bye. Their reunion was warm and touching. Just like old friends or two school chums, Katie delighted Casimer by showing her the camera capabilities of a cell phone.
“This child will go back to Haiti and be able to be with her family once more,” one Rotarian said. “She will grow up to have a future, to love others, to have children and to give back to society.”
For Casimer, the future will come one step at a time. She will start attending school for the first time in January and will continue her physical therapy in Haiti. She can enjoy holidays at home with her family and run and play as a normal child “I just can’t believe that this surgery turned her life around so such,” said Tom Kirstein. “It truly is a miracle.”