Angel’s Story, A Day-by-Day Journal
Little Angel was born with congenital cataracts – one of the most easily treated causes of blindness in infants. Yet, 4 year old Angel from Zihuatanejo, Mexico has not had the resources available to him to have these cataracts removed. In the United States, doctors remove congenital cataracts from infants shortly after birth. However, as children with this condition age, it becomes very difficult to treat as the brain cannot develop the ability to see. Colorado based SEE Doc, James B. Conahan M.D., has been going to Zihuatanejo, Mexico every year since 2007 to treat hundreds of under-served patients. He returned again to help Angel in 2014. Here is Angel’s story, in a day-by-day journal:
The SEE team arrived safely into Zihuatanjeo last night and met with one of our on the ground partners, Xochitl, a worker for Mexico’s Child Welfare Services. The team will meet Angel and his family soon.
This morning, the SEE team was picked up by welfare service employees and headed over to Angel’s neighborhood, which is far from the tourist area. We were greeted by goats and stray dogs littered across the street. As we approach Angel’s house, it’s apparent why they need SEE’s help. Angel’s mother met us with a warm smile. “Aqui tienen su casa” (Our house is your house).
As we enter, we find Angel playing around. We were surprised to see how well-adjusted he is to his surroundings. He approaches us, squinting his eyes, and shakes our hands. We all sit down to chat. His mother tells us that he loves music and loves to dance. She says that he wants to be a singer, teacher, and doctor when he grows up. I present them with the toys we bought. Angel quickly finds the plush soccer ball and proceeds to play with it. We soon found that Angel is your normal big brother, as he found his little brother and immediately bopped him on the head with the soccer ball. Everyone laughed. Angel’s mother offered us a very tasty meal of mole. We bid them all farewell as we had to pick up Dr. Conahan from the airport. We will be returning tomorrow.
Today was long and tiresome. The wonderful people of the welfare services picked us up again. After stopping by the supermarket to pick up some chickens, snacks, and drinks for the family, we head over to Angel’s house. We caught Angel coloring “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman). He was proud to show us his work. He then wanted to show us how he loved to play the drums.
We got the chance to speak a bit more with the parents. Angel would sometimes hold items closely so he could see then, and end up hitting his eye or face. Sometimes he would accidentally bump into his brother and hurt himself. It’s obvious Angel struggles with some of the simplest of tasks. We said our goodbyes and agreed that we’d see each other soon for pre-surgery check up.
Dr. Conahan met up with us at the Naval hospital and we helped set up. He ran the initial tests on Angel to get the correct measurement of lens. It proved to be a bit tricky because when we asked Angel to look directly at the green light, we weren’t sure what that meant to him since his vision wasn’t necessarily centered. After setting up the OR, we said our good night to the family, who was sleeping at the hospital, and to the Conahan’s as we went home to prepare for the big day.
Today is Angel’s surgery day. It was an early morning for everyone today. While the Conahans finished setting up the operating room for Angel, the anesthesiologist arrived to put Angel under. The rest of the team sat waiting in a small room. Around 7:30am, he fell asleep and the procedure began. You could see the fatigue and anxiety in Angel’s mother’s face. Dr. Conahan had assured us it would take between 1.5 and 2 hours. As the 2 hour mark drew near, everyone’s nerves were on end. Mom and Dad were no exception. Then we saw the nurses transport Angel back to a hospital bed. Dr. Conahan reported that “Everything went great. Angel was really strong today.”
Angel felt a bit agitated, as he had never experienced anything like this before. He was very concerned and kept saying, “Mom, I can’t see!” This small vision he was clinging onto was no longer there. We all had to assure him he was going to be ok. The medical team gave Mom and Dad strict instructions for giving Angel his medicine.
According to Dr. Conahan Little Angel’s prognosis is great and we will know more in the coming days and months.
Dr. Conahan asked us all to come and meet him at his condo at 1pm to examine Angel’s eyes after the operation. We helped Dr. Conahan set up a make shift examination room with a slit lamp and an indirect ophthalmoscope. The SEE team is anxious because last we saw Angel, he was a bit finicky due to the anesthesia. Then, we see him. Smiling, holding his father’s hand. We all breathed a sigh of relief. He was all smiles!
As we entered Dr. Conahan’s beautiful condominium complex, Angel was giggling. I can only assume it was because he’d never seen anything so pretty. Dr. Conahan then begins his examination of Angel. He was more than obedient and happy to see Dr. Conahan. As the examination ended, Dr. Conahan couldn’t believe the results. “They blew me away. His vision is ten times better than I would have imagined,” he exclaimed. It was almost night and day, no pun intended. He was no longer squinting. When asked to look forward, he defaulted to turning his head to the right then quickly fixed it. This was a great sign that he no longer had to move his head so that his vision was straight on. All in all, the prognosis for Angel is excellent.
Angel’s life will be filled with many firsts in the upcoming days, weeks and months. His mother put it best – “As I woke up this morning, Angel said ‘Mommy’ and went to touch my face. It was the first time he had ever seen it.”
This is the beginning of Angel’s journey, only time will tell how his vision will develop. Dr. Conahan will be back in May to see Angel and the SEE team will say their goodbyes tomorrow.
So, it was our final day to see what Angel’s life is like. Upon arrival, we rolled out our plan for the day that the team had compiled. However, that all went out the window when we found out that the mother had to get Angel over to the school. Angel’s teacher invited him to come and take a class photo with his schoolmates! We were beyond thrilled. We watched Angel holding his father and mother’s hand as we walk the short distance through the village to the school.
As we get to the school, Angel immediately assimilated with his class. In fact, we couldn’t find him for a minute; that was a great sign. He’s a regular kid. His mother said, “he doesn’t need me to lead him in any more.” It was true. He went in with confidence. His teacher, too, was shocked at how well adjusted he was just two days after surgery. Before the removal of his cataracts, she also had to aid him. His mother continued, “look, she’s used to taking his hand and leading him. He can do it all by himself now.” The boys in the class started to play with him just as usual even though Angel has been out of school for four weeks. This was the first day of the rest of his life with vision.
As we leave, the entire class waves goodbye. Angel has to come back with us since he still needs time to develop more vision before he can be admitted back to school. We return home to take our finals shots. We have a visitor. It’s Fernando, Angel’s good friend. Angel then puts on a show for us and sings us a song. It was a treat. Afterwards, it was time to say goodbye to the great young boy we’d come to know and love over the past four days. We give the family our sincerest thanks for allowing us into their home. The team said their farewell to Angel. We tell him to study hard and he can become anything he wants to. He smiled and shook our hand.
From the photos, you’ll notice Angel no longer looks to the right and squints so that he can see. He can now look you straight in the eye. He also doesn’t have to hold items an inch from his face. He can see things across the yard now. It’s absolutely remarkable how quickly his vision has improved. We didn’t expect this in our wildest expectations. It’s another Angel altogether. He’s a truly tender little boy who is smart and loves his mom and dad very much. It was sad to say goodbye to such a sweet boy. We told him that we live very far away, but that we would visit him again. I’ll miss Angel.
Exciting news from the field! Dr. Conahan and his wife Molly returned to Zihuatanejo for a medical expedition, this time to treat adults with cataracts. While there, however, they checked in on Angel, and were overwhelmed by his improvement. His vision in each eye is now almost perfect! He can see objects both at a distance and up close. Angel will have to wear prescription bifocals to focus on small things like the words in his school books, but other than that, his eyesight could not be better.
Before his surgery, he was very shy. He usually clung to his mother and his teacher while at school. Now, his teacher reports that Angel occasionally gets in trouble because he is socializing too much in class! This is a “good problem” for him to have, though; now that he has his eyesight, he can socialize with his peers and enjoy being a normal four-year old boy.
Angel’s father shared his reflections with Dr. Conahan: “My son’s blindness has been such a weight on me, it makes me walk hunched over. But what father wouldn’t carry the heaviest load any distance to help his son? Now that he can see again, though, I can finally stand up straight again.”
His mother tells an incredibly heartwarming story of the day after Angel’s surgery: “Every morning, he used to have to call me from his bed to help him get up, get dressed, and take him to school. But the day after, I woke up to find that he had gotten up himself, walked into my room, and was stroking my face. He could see me for the first time in his life, and he said ‘Mama! Tu eres bella!’ (‘Mom! You’re so beautiful!’)”
In 2015, Dr. Conahan returned to Mexico on another sight-restoring campaign and checked on Angel. Thankfully, Angel is doing well and back in school. You can enjoy Dr. Conahan’s update in this recorded webinar. We look forward to telling you more about Angel’s story as he grows.