GREENFIELD — Two years ago, when John Ettien learned his 2-year-old daughter, Mattithia, suffered from a life-threatening heart defect, he felt lost. The doctors in the Ivory Coast, where he’s from, couldn’t perform the specialized surgery Mattithia needed, and even if they could, he and his wife couldn’t afford it.
More than 3,500 miles away from Ettien, in Mosul, Iraq, Noor Aljawadeya was suffering a similar fate.
Her daughter, Adyan, also had been diagnosed with a rare condition that restricted her blood flow and, if left untreated, would cause her heart to shut down. It would require multiple surgeries to repair, and that family, too, didn’t have the resources she needed.
Today, both families have something else in common: Their children are on their way to living healthy lives thanks to the Rotary Club of Greenfield.
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Through the service organization’s Gift of Life fundraiser, members secured funds from the community and support from Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis to help treat the youngsters. Both families arrived in Indianapolis several weeks ago for the operations.
Mattithia, now 4, was operated on Tuesday morning, and doctors say that should be the only intervention needed to repair her heart.
After taking loans from banks and asking friends and family for anything they could spare, Ettien said he had exhausted his resources in his hometown, Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast.
“I had to sell everything,” he said. “Even with my job, I didn’t have money to pay for (the procedure).”
Ettien, a Jehovah’s Witness, decided to write a letter to the religious organization’s U.S. headquarters, which referred him to the Gift of Life program. He learned about the local program and wrote another message to Riley Hospital for Children, which then connected him to the local Rotary Club.
It took two years to find help, Ettien said, but he’s hopeful this will be the end of his family’s plight.
“It’s so difficult for a father to see (his) daughter suffer from this and still not have the money to take care of her,” said Ettien. “I hope that after all of this, … she will be alright.”
Adyan, who underwent surgery July 31, is also on the path to recovery, but doctors say she’ll need at least one more surgery to fully mend her heart. It’s unclear whether she’ll be recovered in time to undergo the additional operation during her stay in the U.S., but Dr. Stephanie Kinnaman, Gift of Life adviser for central Indiana and a Greenfield resident, said the organization will also sponsor that procedure.
The Greenfield Rotary’s Gift of Life program is the only one of its kind in the state and one of 71 Gift of Life programs around the world. The local group raises money for the program through an annual dinner and silent auction fundraiser, which regularly raises around $50,000, Kinnaman said.
That money goes toward medical expenses, airfare and accommodations for the families. The surgeons who perform the procedures donate their time, which saves the families thousands of dollars.
The group also sponsors an additional trip each year that sends surgeons overseas to perform procedures closer to where the children live, sparing them from costly and time-consuming plane travel, Kinnaman said.
Since the Greenfield Rotary started the program in 2000, Kinnaman estimates it’s flown at least 15 children to Indianapolis to receive operations. Abroad, she said, it’s sponsored more than 50 surgeries.
The Greenfield Rotary gets connected with families in need in a variety of ways, Kinnaman said. Sometimes parents learn about the program and contact Riley directly, as Ettien did, and sometimes, they receive referrals from Gift of Life International, which coordinates with local Rotary organizations.
Aljawedeya remains hopeful that Adyan will grow up to be as strong as her twin sister, Renad, who also traveled with the family to the U.S.
She said it’s difficult to see Renad run around with abandon while Adyan sometimes needs to sit to catch her breath.
She’s grateful to all those who have contributed to the effort to treat her daughter.
“I feel so thankful for everyone involved,” she said. “It’s so kind that they feel the need to save her life.”
Kinnaman, a Greenfield Rotarian and local physician, said she gets something out of the process, too.
“It’s life changing for them, of course, but it also is for me,” she said. “I have friends from all over the world because we, as Greenfield Rotarians, changed their lives forever.”
She added that although the Greenfield Rotary pays the stipend for the families’ visits, it’s a collective effort.
“It’s not only the people that helped raise the money through our fundraiser … but also the entire team — doctors and nurses alike — that takes care of them while they’re there,” she said.
During their visits, both families are living at the Ronald McDonald House, an overnight facility for families with children facing extended stays in nearby Riley. Doctors will evaluate the conditions of both children before the families return home; both are scheduled to leave in October.
Despite language and cultural barriers, Kinnaman said, the families seem to have established a connection with one another through their shared experience.
“Although there are all kinds of differences between the two families,” she said, “there seems to be this common understanding about their struggles that they’re able to express to one another.”