The WCTF Story
The story I’m about to tell you is a human story. In January of 1987 I was assigned to explore the possibility of opening a senior command officer exchange between the Los Angeles Police Department and police of Argentina’s interior province of Cordoba.
I traveled to Cordoba with another LAPD Commander and met friendly, human police officers. The Cordoba provincial police were eager to show us their advancing professionalism and tactics. They had a SWAT team, which among other functions operated in mountain lake rescue operations by parachuting rescue officers into lakes. To have us observe this tactic; they helicoptered us to the mountain lake resort village of Carlos Paz.
When the helicopter touched down at lakeside, I could see a group of several hundred school children behind a protective rope waving their greeting. As the helicopter’s engine shut down, I could hear their song, which included the words “bienvenidos Americanos,” which even in my beginner’s Spanish, I could understand. More important, I saw their beautiful smiles and their healthy, happy buoyant humanity. I asked the Argentine pilot whether it would be proper to go greet them. He said “go.” I slipped under the rope and was swarmed by these children who would not let me go until every last one of them welcomed me in the Argentine tradition of a sweet greeting and kiss.
As a police officer for almost 32 years I have entered many homes and situations and been greeted in a variety of ways, but never like that. When I waved goodbye I saw their smiles and waves, but not very clearly because a strange and uncontrollable fog had crept into my eyes accompanied by a lump in my throat. This feeling has never quite left me.
My own childhood was in Africa and Europe. A son of Mennonite missionary parents in Zaire and later France, I experienced many cultural traditions which have enriched my life. Among some French families when someone dies, there is a custom of reaching into the household clock and respectfully stopping the pendulum, marking the stopping of time in the life of the loved one. The children of Carlos Paz produced in me just the opposite. With the sweetness and innocence of their unreserved affection and welcome, they reached into my heart and started a pendulum moving that I honestly believe will not stop until I die, so profound was their effect upon me.
After I returned to Los Angeles, at an official reception for the Governor of the province of Cordoba, I encountered, by chance, an Argentine physician named Ricardo Low. Dr. Low, in our casual conversation, mentioned to me the life-threatening plight of a young Argentine girl who was named Veronica Arguello. Dr. Low said Veronica was dying of idiopathic cirrhosis of the liver in a town close to Buenos Aires. The only hope for her was a liver transplant and, at that time, medical science in Argentina had not yet arrived at the capacity for liver transplants. I had never met Veronica, but somehow I saw her face in that crowd of smiling children at Carlos Paz waiting to embrace me…and the pendulum inside me was moving rhythmically, uncontrollably it seems because I was compelled to action in ways to this day I don’t fully understand. Call it the power of children’s love if you will. Whatever it was, it had a compelling call to reciprocation.
I took a business card from Dr. Low at the reception, leaned it against the phone in my office at our Police Headquarters building and stared at it, knowing somehow that one phone call would consume considerable energy. I delayed a day or so and finally picked up the phone, punched in the numbers and was talking again to Dr. Low. “I want to help that little girl” I said. “What does she need?” His answer: “about three hundred thousand dollars for liver transplant surgery in Pittsburgh”. I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said, “let’s get started” and we did.
We launched a “Veronica Committee” in Los Angeles, created “Veronica-Grams” and tried to tell the world how much she needed us. It was decided that Veronica should come to Los Angeles and through the Veronica Committee we went to work on travel, housing, and preparations. When she finally arrived with her mother Raquel and brother Jose, she worked her way into the hearts of all who met her. She celebrated a birthday in Los Angeles, her 12th. I remember giving her the gift of a scenic jig-saw puzzle and watching her carefully rewrapping the present so as not to waste the wrapping. The puzzle of her life was to be a major one for all of us. The question was: how to put together three hundred thousand dollars. We learned of a high-quality Dallas, Texas children’s hospital which assured us that the costs would be about one hundred fifty thousand dollars. We all agreed–Veronica should go to Dallas.
Through the help of the Dallas Chief of Police and his staff, and through friendly contacts in local churches and communities, the reception arrangements were made and I boarded an American Airlines flight with Veronica and her family for Dallas. Now the Dallas Veronica Committee was formed under Janie Hernandez, and the fund raising continued. Corporations and individuals participated with activities such as car washes and city-wide hair-a-thon by barbers. When we learned that now one hundred thousand dollars was in the Veronica Trust Fund, we celebrated. It’s going to happen. It had to happen.
We were also warned that with complications the costs could rapidly run up. And substantially. With that thought plaguing me, I received a chance visit from Dick Hayward, a Constable from the Ontario, Canada Provincial Police. Dick reached into his pocket when I told him the story and handed me the dollars in his wallet, and along with it some advice. He told me of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dick’s home. He said the hospital had a compassionate reputation and sometimes helped out needy children. I hardly waited for Dick to leave my office before I called and spoke with Dr. Ricardo Superina, the Director of the hospital’s pediatric organ transplant program.
Dr. Superina’s assurance was that “yes, sometimes we do things for purely compassionate reasons”. These words brought hope and a new challenge. Could Veronica continue her odyssey? How long was this odyssey to be? When Dr. Superina called back with the news that the hospital could accommodate Veronica with $80,000 and there would never be additional fees, the decision was made. Convincing Raquel was another matter. I met with her in Dallas. “Just one more trip” was our assertion. “Toronto is best.” In the end, Raquel gave me the gift of her trust. By now she was referring to me as “the Commandante”. “Commandante says we should go to Toronto and that’s what we will do” was her attitude. And, so we made the last leg of the long trip–Berazategui to Los Angeles to Dallas and now Toronto.
When I again joined this group of three after making all the Toronto arrangements; immigration, housing, hospital and so much more; we headed for Toronto. The Toronto greeting was stupendous. One whole wing of the airline terminal was filled with news representatives and Veronica’s new friends. Every newspaper and every television channel carried stories. Veronica became Toronto’s new little resident, and the city loved her. She spent Christmas there and waited as so many do for an organ to be available of the same or similar size and same blood type. The wait continued across the weeks and Veronica grew sicker.
In the beginning of March of 1988 the day arrived and she finally went into the long anticipated liver transplant surgery. The surgery was long and grueling as she struggled for her life. The scar tissue from prior surgeries and degeneration made things worse for her. In numerous phone calls across the miles I tracked her progress. The surgery had not gone well. They were going to make another attempt. Miraculously, another organ was available after the second transplant. She remained comatose and they were going to go through it yet a third time.
On March 6, 1988 the phone rang. It was the transplant coordinator. Veronica’s portal vein, the major vein leading to her liver had collapsed and she had died. My daughter Katrina was watching me on the phone. Seeing the look on my face, she quietly came behind me and put her arms around me as the fog crept into my eyes and my heart. This was impossible. So many plans, so much long anticipated joy, never to be realized. My unspoken personal dream of watching her at her wedding someday in Argentina slipped quietly away along with her precious life. It simply did not compute. In a way, I will never fully accept it.
Veronica died with only one fear. She said she was not afraid of dying. She just didn’t want to die alone. And, of course, she didn’t. In that small surgery room were the spirits loving friends and families in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Dallas and Toronto, along with her own immediate family which now included her Dad who had recently flown in. Her room was crowded with love and eager expectations.
Veronica’s mother called me from the Dallas Fort Worth Airport en route home to Argentina. During a layover the Dallas Committee organized a memorial service in the transit terminal. At the conclusion of the service she reached me in my office by phone. Through an interpreter, Raquel said I was a saint. I denied it. She said I was Veronica’s second father. I accepted. I would always be their Commandante. I was pleased. My photo would always be in their home. I was humbled.
Veronica at least had her chance, she said, because of me, but she would have died in vain if I did not continue helping the other Veronicas of the world. Would I give her my promise that I would. I said: “I promise.” How could I stop that pendulum started by the children of Carlos Paz?
I had no idea how to get started. I sought advice from Dr. Robert Gale, who had performed the bone marrow transplants on the children of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Dr. Gale suggested “don’t work on individual cases. You will run out of money and have to someday say no”. Instead he recommended “work on the conditions in the countries where children lived so they won’t have to make the trip to the United States, overload U.S. waiting lists and go through the cross-cultural trauma”. With Dr. Gale’s advice, we incorporated in 1988 as the World Children’s Transplant Fund–four words which captured our mission of providing the opportunity for life-saving organ transplant surgery to children everywhere.
Since 1988 when we incorporated we have pursued a clear vision: “A world where children in need of organ transplants will have the opportunity regardless of where they live”. We always say “a kid is a kid”.
Our strategy is spelled out in our three T’s: Technology – for hospitals, Training – for surgeons and staffs, and Teaching – for organ donor awareness. These needs vary widely among the nations of our world.
We are pursuing these strategies by establishing regional transplant centers to achieve our goal. We are now actively operating in Argentina, Veronica’s homeland. It was our first center and is becoming our South American regional center. Our Central American Center in San Jose, Costa Rica is operating as well. We are , of course, operating in the USA where every day, another Veronica dies while waiting for an organ because not enough people are willing to make the organ donation decision for themselves, and on behalf of their children. Soon, we will be in Mexico City, a massive region of its own, in the Middle East–in Yerevan, Armenia and in Russia where the little ones of the Filotov Children’s Hospital await our help.
Who can say how many ships don’t crash on the rocks because a lighthouse is there. Similarly, it’s hard to count, but we know with absolute certainty that hundreds of children are alive today because of Veronica. In Argentina alone laws have changed. Technology has vastly improved. Surgeons and staffs are trained and the organ donation rate is very high.
As we now look to the future we face massive obstacles, but never any greater than the obstacles faced by Veronica. We will carry on because of her, because of the promise, because of the Million Dollar Round Table and its generous contributions, and because of so many around the world who are joining us in this expedition for the little ones.
And here are the little ones who are living and loving and playing because someone cares about them. As you look at these faces can’t you see your own child? Isn’t your child worth saving? Are these any less worthy?
I am so glad I seized the opportunity with that first phone call from my busy office. How busy do you have to be to stop caring for these precious treasures?
Ladies and gentlemen, mesdammes et messieurs, damas y caballeros, children are waiting for us and we have the rare opportunity to bring joy to homes filled with tears.
As far as I am concerned, when the children of our world die needlessly and without hope, a piece of us dies with them whether we know it or not. And when we help just one to live, we find a small piece of immeasurable, indescribable joy.
They need me and I need you.