All It Took Was Heart: The Unexpected Recovery of Manuel Alarcón
After the wedding and the wedding feast, the entire village, from the tottering young to the tottering old, turned out for the wedding dance. In Ajoya, weddings don’t happen very often. Of the three types of marriage—iglesia (church), civíl judge) and matorro (underbrush)—the matorro espouse most newlyweds, with only the stars and mosquitoes attending the ceremony. A formal wedding is a luxury few can afford. It requires a priest, who must be brought by chartered backwoods bus all the way from San Ignacio. It entails the cost of a huge wedding feast—to which the whole village assumes Invitation—plus the expense of contraband alcohol, not to mention the stipend for the band to play eleven hours straight at the dance. All in all, a wedding is a rare event, even more exciting than an eclipse of the sun—or an airplane.
But the wedding dance of last July 19th was yet more special. Octavio and Tinín—sweethearts since age five—had at long last wed. Octavio, a native of Ajoya, is the young headmaster of the village school and for the most part revered by children and parents alike. All those who could possibly cram into the stifling adobe room of the dance, crammed into it. Those who could not, pressed in a herd around the doorways and out into the street. The Banda de Ajoya—with two battered trumpets, a clarinet, a sawed-off trombone, a bruised mini-tuba, a snare drum and a bass drum thumped by a six year old boy half its size—blared forth with favorite rancheros. At first only a few couples danced, modestly and rather self-consciously, within the tiny clearing opened by the crowd, but as daylight softened with the approach of rain and evening, and bottles of Coca Cola spiked with vino (actually tequila) circulated through the crowd, all reserve dissolved. Temperature and tempo increased. The pulsing fever of dance swept through the sweating spectators like an epidemic. Those with partners took them. Those with none danced alone. Those considered by the village to be too young to dance with the opposite sex, danced with the same or with broomsticks, or clasping the invisible figments of their budding dreams.
Those who are too young to dance with the opposite sex, danced with the same or with broomsticks, or clasping the invisible figments of their budding dreams.
Soon the heat and confinement inside the tight room grew too much, and the dancing crowd, followed by the band, spilled out into the street. A covey of married women ranging from 14 to 40 suddenly converged in the center of the throng and began dancing their conception of Tock and roll, laughing at their attempt as they did so. As the band played faster, the women danced more wildly, breasts bobbing, arms and legs flailing—steps from the Charleston, the Twist and from barn dances—all scrambled into one. The crowd turned all eyes on the frolicking senoras and began to clap in cadence. Nobody paid attention to the first drops of rain forewarning an approaching cloudburst, and even when the shower poured down it was long before the dancing villagers, thoroughly soaked, drifted to the shelter of the verandas. There, out of the rain, the Banda de Ajoya continued to play and the villagers to dance and to dance.
Now the small children, oblivious to the warm monsoon downpour, had reign of the street and made the most of it, like performers on stage. Through puddles and pelting drops they danced with leaps and capers in exaggerated imitation of their elders, whooping and shrieking as they did so.
A Drunk Victory Dance
Standing under the eves of the blacksmith’s shop, I watched this children’s comedy with full delight. But with greatest pleasure, I watched one little ten year old in particular. His energy and impishness were boundless. One moment he would lock his arm with another little boy and whirl in circles in perfect step with the music. Next he would dance alone, or streak like a comet among the other children, poking them in the ribs, and gone by the time they turned around. At one point he vanished from my sight and upon reappearing, staggered drunkenly, an upended beer bottle to his lips. When he noticed me watching, he ran toward me.
“Have a swallow, Don David:” he laughed, offering me the half full bottle. I frowned and shook my finger to say, “No thanks”, whereupon with a big grin, little Manuel poured the contents of the beer bottle on the ground. It was water. “It’s sky water,” he explained soberly, “and I’m drunk.” Then, with a very serious face, he added, “But just a little drunk. I hold it well.” At this point he refilled the bottle by holding it in one of the strands of water pouring from the roof tiles, took another swallow, and as if that were not enough, tossed the bottle into the street and stepped directly into the curtain of water gushing from the roof. He marched back and forth the unintelligible of the roof’s edge, his arms spread in a victorious V toward the dark heaven, and his head tilted skyward with the warm water splashing onto his face and into his open mouth, from which he spouted it back out this way and that. Manuel was drunk, all right; not on alcohol, but on rain water . . . and or life.
Had I never seen Manuel before, his antics would have delighted me. But the pleasure I felt in seeing him so intoxicated with the fullness of life and health was derived from the knowledge that my efforts—along with those of many friends—had in part been responsible for the first good health Manuel has known in the ten difficult years since his birth. How often as I watched him that evening of the wedding dance did I whisper to myself, “If only Dr. Sissman could see you now.”
Manuel’s Apparently Hopeless Medical Condition
Manuel Alarcón was born with a congenital heart defect known as a “tetrology of Fallot”. An abnormal hole in the septum separating the ventricles of the heart, combined with a gross constriction of the pulmonary valve, prevented his blood from transporting enough oxygen from his lungs to his body tissues. As a result, Manuel existed in a state of near suffocation. His general color, especially of lips and fingernails, was blue; his fingertips were clubbed for lack of 02, his eyes bloodshot, his growth stunted. At ten years, he weighed only 45 pounds. He could not run or play or help with chores like other children, for at the slightest exertion he would be gasping for breath. He was timid and terribly spoiled by his gentle mother, Jovita, and his blacksmith father, Salvador.
I had known about Manuel’s heart condition, and suspected it was operable, ever since Dr. Val Price and I had examined him four years before. But there it had remained. I knew the cost of surgery would be prohibitive, and even were I able to raise the money, it would be difficult to justify my spending on one child a quantity equivalent to what Project Piaxtla spends on medical care for more than 4000 patients in a whole year.
The By-Chance Generosity of Dr. Normal Nissman
And so Manuel’s chances of ever leading a normal, healthy life, or for that matter, of even surviving his teens, remained slim until one day last Spring when I was giving a slide show on my project at the home of Stacey and Margaret French in Los Altos, California. Among other slides, I showed one of Manuel and explained his plight. After the presentation, one of the guests introduced himself to me as Dr. Norman Sissman, Head of the Department of Pediatric Cardiology at the Stanford Medical Center. He told me that if I could get X-rays of the boy and his condition proved operable, he would make arrangements for surgery at Stanford. He was sure that the surgeons would perform their services free of charge. As for the hospital bill, which would be around $4,000 and could not be waived, Dr. Sissman offered to raise the funds himself.
The biggest problem in bringing Manuel to Stanford proved to be governmental red tape. Manuel was willing to undertake the surgery only if his mother went with him, and she, only if her husband went too. Arranging passports for Manuel and Salvador was relatively easy, as their births had been duly recorded. But Manuel’s mother, Jovita, a nearly full-blooded Indian born high in the Sierra Madre, had no way of proving her nationality: The hassle and delay was so great that Miggles and John Hicks, who drove the Alarcóns from Ajoya to the States, made it only to Santa Barbara by the day Manuel was scheduled to enter the hospital. However, my friend Norman Moore, flew with me in his small plane to Santa Barbara and brought the family back. We kept very low to the ground because of Manuel’s heart. The few times we had to climb to cross hills, the darkening blue of Manuel’s face registered like an altimeter. The Alarcons' first flight was, needless to say, memorable.
Open heart surgery, was performed by world renowned Dr. Norman Shumway and his team. All doctors donated their services.
Once in Palo Alto, however, things went smoothly. Norman and Jean Moore welcomed the Alarcóns into their home. Their daughter, Marian, who speaks fluent Spanish, helped nobly. At the hospital everyone went out of his way to make Manuel comfortable and put his parents at ease. Preliminary tests were performed by Dr. Sissman and Dr. Green. Open heart surgery, which I had the privilege of observing, was performed by world renowned Dr. Norman Shumway and his team. All doctors donated their services.
Conclusion: A New Boy
From the day of surgery, Manuel looked like a new boy. The blue transformed to rosy pink and his eyes cleared. Within a week he was already more active than he had ever been in his life. A minor complication delayed Manuel’s return to Mexico, but in five weeks it was resolved and the Alarcóns returned to Ajoya, grateful to get home.
Well after dark, the evening of the wedding dance, Jovita called Manuel in off the wet street, but the pulsing music of the band penetrated the Casa and Manuel, still full of life, began dancing with his five year old sister, Norma. Long after Norma and the rest of us had given out, Manuel went on dancing . . alone and joyous . . . a child enthralled with a marvelous new plaything: himself.