Christian Benavides has a new life and a new family helping him heal before he returns to Ecuador
by: Jaime Valdez, Cristian Benavides flexes his Superman muscles to show off how strong he feels nearly two weeks after a successful heart surgery.

Cristian Benavides will return to his family in Ecuador a new boy.

For the first time in his young life, the 5-year-old will be able to keep pace with his cousins, run circles around the adults in his family and amaze those around him with a seemingly never-ending supply of energy.

'He's not a sick boy anymore,' said Jayne Calkins, whose family opened their hearts and Forest Heights home to Cristian while he underwent medical treatment not available in his native country. 'He's a healthy, whole person with things to accomplish in his lifetime.'

Cristian was born with Tetrology of Fallot, a combination of four heart defects that hold down the blood's oxygen level. As a result, when he participated in any strenuous activity, his lips, fingers and toes turned blue.

'Without heart surgery, a child with this condition is pretty limited,' said Dr. Hagop Hovaguimian, a pediatric cardiac surgeon with the Children's Cardiac Center of Oregon at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. 'Over time, the condition worsens because they are not getting enough blood to the lungs.

'As the condition progresses, and the longer we wait to perform surgery, the bluer they become. Many children die before they turn 10.'

In the United States, cardiologists prefer patients to undergo surgery to correct the congenital heart defect while they are babies.

In Cristian's case, surgery was not an option in Ecuador.

But through a national nonprofit volunteer organization called Healing the Children, his family was able to participate in a program allowing Cristian to travel to the United States for the risky and complex heart surgery.

Healing the Children provides medical care to children from developing countries and connects them with medical foster families to live with while they go through treatment and recovery.

The organization arranged for Cristian to stay with Dan and Jayne Calkins and the couple's two daughters, Quinn, 9, and Phoebe, 6.

During his stay, Cristian became part of the family as he sought treatment with cardiologists James Kyser and Peter Chang at Emanuel.

'Cristian's our second medical foster child through Healing the Children,' Jayne said. 'This was something that we could do and knew that we would be able to make a major difference in his life.

'It's a great feeling to be able to help someone. This experience has been much more of a gift to our family than to Cristian. It's much easier to be a helper than to let someone else help you. Our job is pretty easy.'

Generous friends

When Hovaguimian performed Cristian's surgery Aug. 3, the Calkins family rallied around the young boy, each agreeing to sacrifice something to make sure Cristian was never alone.

Jayne remained with Cristian in the hospital while he recovered, the girls spent time inventing games to entertain him and Dan took time away from work to relieve Jayne and care for the girls. Friends also pitched in to aid with Spanish interpretation and anything else needed.

'Everyone has been so generous with anything they can do,' Jayne said. 'His family had the hard part because they were not able to be here with him through everything.

'They took a huge leap of faith and love in trusting us with their little boy. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for them.'

As a patient, Cristian received high marks from his surgeon.

'He was a calm, cute kid,' Hovaguimian said. 'He was not any trouble.

'He's a nice boy. He had a very severe heart disease, and now he has a normal heart. It's my hope that he will be a successful human being, because heart-wise, he's going to be well. I hope he uses it for his own good and for the good of others around him.'

In the past week, the young boy has recovered in the home of his host family.

Watching him zip around the driveway on a Razor scooter, no one would ever guess that walking up a flight of stairs or running a short distance were ever taxing tasks for Cristian.

'He's a different little boy,' said Terry Rupert, a neighbor who stopped by to offer Spanish translation help. 'He's amazing.'

Rupert was impressed by the changes she witnessed in Cristian.

'When I first met him, he wouldn't talk,' she said. 'He was afraid and tentative.

'He would not go long without losing his breath. Now he's what a little boy should be. His color has changed, he's gained a little weight, and he's just happy.'

Jayne agreed and added, 'He's brought lots of little boy energy to our home.'

'I know what it feels like to have a little brother now,' Quinn said.

Cristian, Quinn and Phoebe slipped right into their sibling roles after an initial adjustment period.

'When he first got here, he was very sad and missed his family horribly,' Jayne said. 'By the end of the third day, he stopped crying.'

'Every day felt like a year,' Quinn recalled.

To cheer Cristian up and make sure he took home happy memories, the family filled his time with them with fun activities and experiences.

They went swimming at the Conestoga Aquatic Center, strolled around the Oregon Zoo, took a train to Washington Park and toured OMSI.

'I hope he takes home good and happy memories,' Jayne said. 'We've tried to show him joyful, interesting things. While he's here, we also want to try to do anything else he needs.'

Pediatric dentist Allan Russell Pike of Portland and pediatrician Heather Moore of Metropolitan Pediatrics in Beaverton both offered to treat Cristian and donate their services.

'We've been able to see fantastically talented doctors and nurses and hospital staff that don't just do their job, but wholeheartedly care and give of themselves to this child when there is no financial gain to them,' Jayne said. 'It's inspirational to see so much goodness in people.'

Along the way, Jayne has snapped pictures to document the entire trip for Cristian and his family.

'I took pictures of everything, because as a parent, I would want to know what my child went through,' Jayne said. 'It will also be a document of his experience here as he gets older. We want him to have a record. We hope this experience improves his health and makes a positive change in his future because of that.'

Plane ride home

Both Quinn and Phoebe said they would miss having Cristian around the house.

'It makes me proud to know that we helped him though, and that he's happy,' Quinn said. 'If people want to really make a difference, then they should do it. My family did and that makes me feel good.'

As for Cristian, he's feeling much stronger.

'I feel good,' Cristian said.

While everyone gathered in the family room of the Calkins' home last week, Cristian found the safety instructions for an American Airlines 757.

'I'm excited to ride the airplane to go home,' Cristian said. 'I'm not afraid of flying in the air.'

Pointing to a picture of an airplane window, he added, 'My mom is here. I want to see my mom.'

When asked how he felt about his time with the Calkins, Cristian said, 'They've been good to me. They helped me.'

As Cristian hopped off Rupert's lap as she translated for him, Rupert took a moment to share her own thoughts.

'He's happy here, but he wants to go home,' Rupert said. 'Jayne and her family made an environment so he could feel safe. Within that experience, he had a major medical procedure.

'The love he's felt since he's been here started before he came and will continue long after he's gone.'

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