In a lot of ways, Aydin Cumatzil-Tun is an average 5-year-old—thriving, and full of personality. “He’s adorable,” says his host mom, Jackie Alectoridies. “He’s very energetic, and very funny. Everybody loves him.” But Aydin was also born with a rare condition called nasal encephalocele, in which the protective structures around his brain did not form properly early in development. A gap in his skull let his brain push forward into his nasal cavity.
Aydin’s encephalocele changed the shape of his nose and face. But fortunately, at 5 years old, he had not yet suffered any neurological damage that was likely if the problem went unchecked. It was still possible for a highly skilled neurosurgeon to repair the encephalocele, allowing Aydin to develop without brain damage. Unfortunately, this surgery was not an option for Aydin in his native Guatemala.
An organization called Healing the Children, which helps children in need of medical care in the United States and abroad, became aware of Aydin’s case. They knew that pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Anderson, who has worked with the program before, is experienced with this type of surgery. When they asked Dr. Anderson about volunteering his expertise to perform the surgery that would protect Aydin’s brain, he immediately agreed. Healing the Children arranged Aydin’s travel to the U.S. to receive surgery.
While children like Aydin are here receiving medical treatment, they also need the care, support and love that kids need even under the easiest of circumstances. And these kids’ situations are anything but easy: They are far from home, they are without their families, and they are scheduled for surgery. For more than 20 years, Jackie has been acting as a parent for these children while they are in the US..
So when Aydin stepped off the plane from Guatemala, Jackie and her family were there to greet him. And since then, they have acted as his family, caring for him, bringing him to doctor’s appointments and making frequent phone calls to his loving family in Guatemala, who are desperate for their child to be well.
“Something about me is drawn to do this,” says Jackie. “It’s not like I sat around thinking, ‘How can I be a good person?’ It’s just in my heart to do it.”
Aydin is part of Jackie’s family now. “One of the reasons I’m so passionate about working with this organization is that there are lots of organizations to which you can give money, but you’re not really sure where it’s going, or you just see pictures or videos of the kids,” she says. “But these are kids we see and grow to love.”
For 20-plus years, Jackie has been a loving host mom to many children who were undergoing surgery. But, she says, even for her, Aydin’s surgery was a lot to think about. It would require an incision over the top of his head, from ear to ear, and extensive bone removal, in order to access and repair the opening in his skull. It was difficult to think about a child they loved undergoing such extensive surgery.. “We were very nervous,” she says. “Of all the surgeries I’ve been through, this was one of the most nerve-wracking for me.”
But, she says, Dr. Anderson made everything seem better. “He is an excellent doctor—excellent. He’s just the nicest man, first of all. He was extremely confident and knowledgeable, and so informative. He just made us feel comfortable.”
Jackie was especially put at ease by Dr. Anderson’s combination of clear expertise and clear caring.
“You know, based on my experiences over the past 20 years—including with my own children—when you’re going into surgery with your kid, you want to make sure the doctor is the best. Personality would be great, but at the end of the day, you don’t even care if they’re not the nicest person as long as they’re the best, because that’s what really matters.
“But with Dr. Anderson, you get the best of both worlds.”
Aydin’s case certainly required Dr. Anderson’s surgical expertise. It was a complex and delicate surgery that lasted more than six hours. By the end, Aydin’s encephalocele had been completely repaired. And Dr. Anderson wasn’t done—it was time for his expertise in caring for families. “Dr. Anderson came out after all those hours in the operating room, and he was smiling,” remembers Jackie. “He patiently gave us a very detailed update. He was just wonderful.” Jackie passed the good news along to Aydin’s family in Guatemala.
After the surgery, Aydin spent a week in the pediatric ICU. “All the nurses and everybody else we spoke to in the hospital just raved about Dr. Anderson and his work, and how well his kids do after surgery,” says Jackie. “I have to say, Aydin’s a pretty resilient, strong kid. But based on what everyone was telling me, I’m thinking that Dr. Anderson had a lot to do with the fact that he did so well [after surgery].”
Aydin recovered from his surgery with no problems. When he was healed, he picked back up with his temporary classmates at the Montessori school Jackie owns. He will receive two more surgeries—dental surgery and facial cosmetic surgery—before returning to his family in Guatemala.
Since his surgery, Aydin has remained active and happy, and he has returned to Dr. Anderson for follow-up visits. “Just going back to the office after surgery was a little nerve-wracking for him, because once you’ve been through something like that—as good as they all were, both him and the doctors—obviously, you’re a little shy about the whole hospital setting,” says Jackie. “But Dr. Anderson was so good with him—very calm, relaxed and patient.
“Honestly, I think he’s one of the best doctors I’ve ever dealt with,” says Jackie, who has dealt with more doctors than the average person. “I love him, I just love him.”
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