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Stranded in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, infants flown to Miami for heart surgery

Daniel Chang, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

Once the flight was ready on Sept. 23, Perez learned that there would be room on the plane for only her and Liam. Brian Nieves stayed behind in Puerto Rico.

Jose Troche and Cheira Ruiz, the parents of Gabriellyz, sheltered at home in the town of Guanica, about a two-hour drive from San Juan. Cheira Ruiz said she agonized wondering how her baby was doing after the storm after Guanica lost communication with the rest of the island.

When they finally got word about Gabriellyz, it came from Puerto Rican civil defense workers, who went looking for them after the Cardiovascular Center put out a call through local radio stations, pleading for help finding the baby's parents.

Cheira Ruiz flew to Miami with Garbiellyz on Sept. 24, and Jose Troche joined them a few days later. But they had to leave their 10-year-old son, Derek, in Puerto Rico with family, with whom they have been unable to communicate.

"It's very sad," Cheira Ruiz said. "We've had very little communication with family. They have no water, no food, no gas and no power."

Once the infants were in Miami, a team of specialists was waiting for them at Nicklaus Children's. Doctors first had to evaluate the infants to make sure they knew the correct diagnosis, said Dr. Kristine Guleserian, a cardiovascular surgeon who operated on Liam.

"You have to act quickly," she said, "and do the right surgery."

To prepare for surgery on Liam, whose heart has a hole in it and cannot pump blood to the lungs, doctors first took a CT scan of his heart, and then used the image to create a three-dimensional plastic model of his heart and adjoining arteries. The model is about the size of a walnut.

In total, the Nicklaus surgeons performed 20 hours of surgeries on the three infants, who are now recovering. But their heart conditions will require more surgeries in the future.

"The prognosis for these kids is good," Burke said. "These kids can have a good life."

As much as doctors and others in Miami and San Juan did to save the lives of three infants, though, Burke said he wants the people of Puerto Rico to know that the rescue was also for them, for those who are still on the island without clean water, power, phone service and other comforts.

"For all the people in Puerto Rico who hear about this," he said, "it's a glimmer of hope."

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