Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Hero to All

June 1st is national Children’s Day in China….a day to celebrate the beauty and wonder of childhood. All across China there will be festivals and events to mark this very important day. To those of us at LWB, Children’s Day has an even deeper meaning to us. June 1st was the day that the world was graced by the birth of Dr. John Padilla, one of the most compassionate, humble, and generous men I have ever had the honor of meeting. John was on our very first cleft surgery team to China, where he touched the lives of 50 incredible kids. Tragically, a few months after that trip, he lost his life in a plane accident. All of us who were given the gift of working with him will never, ever forget his passion for children in need.

I know I have told this story before, but in honor of this great man I want to tell it again. In late 2003, when we were just a few months old as a foundation, I was approached by a medical team who said they wanted to set up a cleft mission to China. I never in a million years would have attempted something as complex as sending a team of physicians to a foreign country in our first year as a foundation, especially since my resume was one line long....."mom". But this medical group wanted to go, they told me they would handle it, and so I told them I would arrange a hospital. I flew to China in February of 2004, ironed out all the details with the hospital, signed a contract, contacted 12 orphanages to have them send children.....everything was set.

And then the unthinkable happened. Just two months before the mission, the team backed out. And we had children that we knew were from rural orphanages who would not get surgical care unless we came, and we had a signed contract with a hospital to pay for the surgery block time.....I had all of these photos of the kids needing surgery, and I knew we had little people counting on us to come.

It was an incredibly stress filled day. When someone tells you "are you sitting down?" you know it isn't good news, and that is what they said when they called to tell me they would not be going to China.

Phone calls flew back and forth between our board members as we agonized over what we should do. Should we cancel? Should we attempt this on our own? Where would we find doctors with just two months left when most mission trips are planned almost a year out? With each new phone call we had a different answer. It was was on....the kids needed us.....we couldn't handle this.

Finally I just went to my car and sat there and started crying. And I turned it all over to God. I said "if you want these babies healed, then we need a miracle”.

The very next day I received a phone call from Dr. John Padilla, who told me he had heard we were heading to China and if there was any way on a future trip he could go, he wanted to volunteer his services. He told me of how he had helped kids from Kosovo and Mexico and South America, and so I took a deep breath and said "could you go in eight weeks?" He laughed, said "let me call you back", and within an hour he had cleared his schedule and committed not only himself, but his surgical team. All at his own expense.

I cannot tell you how many times I called John in those eight weeks up to the trip. I was a mom....trying to organize an international medical mission.....and I would call him saying "what about customs?......what about sterilization of instruments? what about lighting and retractors?" and he would always kindly tell me it would all be okay.

The first day of the surgeries, it was very tense as we tried to figure out the schedule and who was on which surgical team, all in two different languages. While the whole team of doctors both from the US and China stood around in the chaos, John picked up the first baby and said "okay, let's go" and he walked back to the OR leaving all of us with our mouths open. But then we took a deep breath and hurried after him, knowing it was time to begin.

I never told him about praying for a miracle. I wish I had. To have been sent the gift of his surgical abilities in addition to receiving the gift of this man who LOVED kids and who won over an entire Chinese hospital staff with his easy going nature.....that was my miracle. Over and over he showed his true compassion. I remember one tiny baby girl that no one wanted to operate on. The local doctors said she was a lost cause because she was too sick and too tiny. And John looked at them and said "this is a human life and we have to try". That little girl has the most beautiful face now, and she began to thrive after she could eat properly for the first time. I believe with all my heart that he saved not only her smile but her life.

John had made a promise to me that he would travel every year to China, and he was working with us on coming up with a model to form a cleft center in China, providing free medical care so that parents would never have to make the agonizing decision to abandon a baby born with cleft. He talked about that dream with me on our second day in China. He kept saying "what if we tried this? what if we made a regional center?" and I kept saying "John, you have to realize that we are a small foundation and we pay all of our own expenses”. And he would smile that incredible smile and say, “Amy….dream big, dream big, dream big”.

Today as I write this blog, I remember a man who was truly one of my heroes. A man who loved children and understood that by giving from the heart, by stepping out of our comfort zone and taking risks to care about these tiny little faces that many of us only know in pictures.........we really can change lives and bring hope to children all around this earth. John lived his life believing that the only real failure was not trying. He believed with all his heart that if we just try, one life at a time, to show others that there is hope, and that others do care, that the world truly will be a better place.

Dr. Padilla, we will never forget all that you did for children throughout the world. Every baby that we heal through our John Padilla Cleft Fund is in your honor, and every child healed on one of our cleft missions carries a piece of your legacy.

“Dream big, dream big, dream big.” Oh John, I promise we're trying. Happy birthday, dear friend. We will never forget you.

Amy Eldridge