Newport News medics transform boy's life with surgeries

The devastating Haitian earthquake in January 2010 that destroyed countless lives came as a blessing in disguise for one little boy.

Alexander Hernandez, now 2 years old, was born with crippling deformities in three limbs. His left hand was webbed, his right leg twisted and incomplete, and his left leg, ending in a club foot, was so misshapen as to be useless. His parents, Adalgisa Hernandez and Sandy Oralle, live in a two-room hut in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. His future looked bleak. "He would have been condemned to crawling around on a dirt floor all his life," says Katya Dahdah, a Newport News resident, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and maintains strong family ties there.

Through Dahdah's efforts for Haitian relief and her medical connections here on the Peninsula and on the island of Hispaniola, she arranged for the necessary corrective surgeries for Alexander to live a normal life.

"He was trapped in his body," says his mother — as Dahdah translates for her — sitting in her host family's Denbigh living room in Newport News. The Hernandez mother and son arrived in October and their stay here with Gladys and Domingo Malpica, a retired couple from Puerto Rico, has stretched from the planned six weeks — they were expecting to be home for Christmas — to almost four months. During that time Alexander has seen snow for the first time, and picked up a smattering of English and a love of French fries.

Hernandez is anxious to be home with her family, but supremely grateful to all the people who came together to help her second child. "God gave me a wonderful child to start with. Then I met all these wonderful people through him," she says.

On March 4, Alexander and his mother will return home. His left leg appears almost normal now; his right leg has been straightened and a newly fitted below-the-knee prosthetic will allow him to walk. The fingers of his right hand have been separated and will grow somewhat to give him limited function.

Dahdah has been the linchpin of a far-flung network of helpers, coordinating, translating, asking favors and following through in what has become one giant mutual admiration society. "Everyone just stepped up to do the right thing," says Lex McArthur, a Newport News plastic surgeon, who helped restore Alexander's hand. "Now he has a chance to just be OK and function normally."

The toddler's journey towards a normal life started soon after the earthquake in January 2010. That's when Dahdah orchestrated and accompanied a delivery of nine pallets of medical equipment to Haiti from the Medical Society Alliance, a Peninsula charitable group of doctors' spouses. With the help of other members, including McArthur's wife, Barbara, she also arranged for their shipment, donated by Orion Air.

While Dahdah was visiting the island, her sister, Yadira Bournigal, founder of a well-known school in the Dominican Republic, asked her for help for Alexander. Dahdah turned to retired Newport News surgeon Glenn Shepard, part of a volunteer medical team working at Notre Dame Logane. "I did the first surgery on his hand, separating the middle and index fingers. Before that it was just one big lump," Shepard says. He describes the conditions as primitive and challenging with temperatures well into the 90s. "Some of the key materials just weren't there in the tents."

That was just the beginning. Alexander needed several more surgeries and the technology wasn't available locally. Dahdah and her sister went to work; "I crossed my fingers and made myself responsible," says Dahdah, whose husband is a nephrologist in Newport News. While Bournigal secured free flights from Delta for Alexander and his mother, Dahdah spent three months obtaining the necessary visas for their stay. "That was the hardest part of the whole procedure," she says.

By contrast, Dahdah had no problem finding a Spanish-speaking family to host the mother and son for their stay in Newport News. She simply approached the Malpicas, who attend her church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and they agreed readily. Their own six children and five adopted children are all grown and out of the house, though they visit frequently. "He's like a grandchild to us," says Domingo Malpica, 70. "We'll miss both of them, but especially the kid." His wife, Gladys, 66, smiles in agreement.

Then the medical community came through on every front. Shepard, a former senior partner in McArthur's practice, asked him to take over the hand surgeries; anesthesiologist Paul Rein volunteered his services; Mary Immaculate supplied the X-rays; and Ole Raustol, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters took on the complex task of untangling Alexander's legs. "They were very unusual looking with several rolls and lumps," says Raustol, who attributes the toddler's deformities to amniotic band syndrome.

Raustol's operations included straightening the tibia, lengthening the Achilles tendon and repeated castings over six weeks. Both McArthur and Shepard marvel at the results he achieved. "You can't believe how his left foot looked. … He had big depressions, from the skin to the bone with giant doughballs at the end," says Shepard. "He did a beautiful job." The final follow-up procedure came from Ryan Dougherty with Coastal Prosthetics and Orthotics, who donated a prosthetic. "Once he figures out walking, there'll be no stopping him," says Raustol. "I don't anticipate he'll need much training, the drive for locomotion is so strong at that age."

Meanwhile, McArthur performed two surgeries to separate Alexander's digits. "If you don't separate them they don't grow," he says. "Now he can move his fingers independently and it looks much better than one mitt." McArthur used skin grafts from the groin to create flaps. "None of the anatomy is normal; it's difficult not to disturb the blood supply and nerves. If your flaps aren't done properly you have scarring and healing issues and it will look the same as before," he adds. Syndactyly, or webbing, is a common congenital abnormality but usually only affects the middle and ring fingers; Alexander has complex syndactyly in which the bones are fused as well as the skin.

Dahdah took full advantage of all the medical services offered, taking Hernandez to her dentist, Robert Field, and to obstetrician John Lockhart, as well as having Alexander checked out by pediatrician Margaret Blanchard.

And Dahdah didn't stop with finding medical care. She took Alexander to Toys R Us. "He didn't want any toys," she marvels. "What 2-year-old doesn't want toys? Instead, he picked out his first pair of shoes. That's all he wanted. I bought three pairs." She already has him enrolled in rehab therapy and a private school on his return to Puerto Plata and she's working to improve conditions in the family's home.

In exchange for all her help, Dahdah asked his mother for just one thing — that Alexander get an education. Hernandez completed sixth grade and wants to return to school herself. "I won't let you down," she promised.

This weekend, Dahdah will celebrate with almost three dozen people who've contributed to Alexander's care. "We cannot save the world, but we can save one child," she says. "There have been so many good things and good people."

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