Friday, December 22, 2006

Children of the Americas provides medical care for children

'Miracles happen' -
Jody Greenlee finds the medical care that children need
Issacs, Barbara. Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 9, 2006, pg. A1.

The faces on Jody Greenlee's computer cabinet door are the once-forgotten children who are now the lucky ones.

The burned teenager from Nigeria. The boy with the mangled foot from Guatemala. The Bolivian toddler who keeps the longtime pediatric nurse awake at night, wondering how to find a home for a baby who still has years of surgery ahead.

During the past six years, Greenlee has shepherded 74 children here for life-changing medical care, working from her Lexington basement, the nerve center of a small, local medical relief group called Children of the Americas. The children on the cabinet door are the eight living in Kentucky and Ohio now, getting the chance at healing, at a future, largely due to Greenlee's ability to coordinate complicated international travel and coax free medical care from doctors and hospitals.

"She is the person who makes miracles happen," said Rosemary Vance, a Lexington lawyer and executive director of Children of the Americas. "She just has a real heart for these kids."

No one who works for Children of the Americas gets a paycheck, and the initiative runs entirely on donations. Greenlee, 49, has been the group's health care coordinator since August 2000 and has volunteered between 30 and 60 hours a week ever since. Among those that Greenlee has helped is Waghdan Aljayashee, a badly burned 12-year-old Iraqi girl who lived in Lexington for six months while getting surgery in Cincinnati.

"I need two lifetimes to do all I want to do," Greenlee said.

Her family -- she and her husband, Tom, a Lexington vascular surgeon, have three teenage children -- also opened their home to children for the group twice.

"We put so much energy and love into these kids," Greenlee said. "What more can you do for a family than give the health of their child back?"

Their first foster child was Eddie, a 9-week-old from Guatemala with a severely cleft palate and malnutrition. He lived with them for five months. They also took in Albertina, 12, a Guatemalan girl with a crushed pelvis from a bus crash.

To focus on Children of the Americas, Greenlee left her longtime job as a pediatric nurse at the University of Kentucky; she worked for more than 15 years in pediatric hematology and the neonatal intensive care unit.

Right now, Greenlee is coordinating the care of eight children from five countries who are in the region while getting medical treatment. Seven are living with Kentucky families, and one is in Ohio.

And as always, she's working on bringing more, including a 10-year-old Iraqi boy named Ali, who was badly burned in a kerosene fire at his home in Basra. The children currently here through Children of the Americas include one child from Bolivia, one from Belize, one from Honduras and four from Guatemala. Greenlee also recently brought in the group's first child from Africa, a 13-year-old boy named Victor from Nigeria. On Sept. 19, he underwent his fourth surgery in two weeks at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, which provides free burn care for children. Victor was burned 13 months ago; his clothes caught fire, ignited by a kerosene heater.

Greenlee's work with Children of the Americas includes tons of e-mailing and phone calling.

Jenny Sutton-Amr, whose family hosted the Iraqi girl Waghdan and her grandmother, found that Greenlee's work behind the scenes was dogged and tireless.

For a keepsake, Sutton-Amr printed out every e-mail Greenlee sent her about the twists and turns in Waghdan's case. "It turned out to be close to 1,000 e-mails," Sutton-Amr said. "It's mind-boggling. It was like being pulled into a cyclone."

Waghdan's case file, meticulously documented by Greenlee, was as thick as a Lexington phone book.

"I don't think I've ever known anyone with such patience or cheerful perseverance under stress," Sutton-Amr said. "It's quite amazing. I find her enthusiasm infectious."

Most days, Greenlee's life is not at all about accolades. It's about helping the kids she's worked hard to bring here.

On a recent day, she spent four hours at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Lexington, as doctors evaluated newly arrived Franklin Barrientos, 12, of Guatemala. Franklin's foot was crushed by a car when he was 5. The boy seemed ashamed of his foot and wept every time he had to reveal it.

"It's never going to be a foot he can be a hard laborer on," said Dr. Todd Milbrant, an orthopedic surgeon, as he looked at Franklin's X-rays. "There are many bones in the foot that haven't formed and have not formed correctly" because his foot never developed properly due to the accident's damage. Franklin's foot is twisted and he walks on the side of it more than the sole. It will take more evaluation to decide what surgery should be done.

One of the people involved in the case is Wayne Cottle, director of prosthetics at Shriners. He's a favorite of Greenlee's. Cottle, a dedicated volunteer, is on the board of Children of the Americas.

"Do you have your legs ready yet?" Greenlee asked him. That would be a strange question for anyone else, but Cottle makes three to four trips a year to Guatemala, fitting mostly artificial legs and feet. He's making another trip this week. Since he began working with Children of the Americas four years ago, he's fit 156 individual legs on people in Guatemala. He's expecting a thorough search at the airport -- hardly anyone travels with luggage full of limbs.

It's clear the admiration is mutual.

"I think Jody is just of a giving nature," Cottle said.

Later that day, Greenlee visited Christian Contreras, 17, from Guatemala, who has been treated through Children of the Americas since he was a toddler. Christian has hemifacial macrosomia, a condition that causes half of the face to be underdeveloped. Christian has made four trips to Kentucky for extended stays since 1992. Each time, he lived with his foster mom, Linda Houchens, in Glasgow.

Greenlee wanted to see his progress during an appointment at Lexington Clinic, where head and neck surgeon Dr. Wayne Colin oversaw a process that is expected to stretch Christian's jaw bones.

All of it is part of her role -- she works to recruit and retain medical foster parents and seeks out doctors and hospitals that will provide free care. It's a never-ending process, and there are always more children to help.

"One reason I love this is that each child brings a different story, a different adventure," Greenlee said. "It doesn't ever occur to me to be depressed. Yes, we help one child out of 1,000, but we are doing something."

Sometimes the work gets emotionally complicated. One child Children of the Americas is handling is Litzi Loza, a Bolivian 2-year-old. She was left at a Bolivian hospital when she was 3 months old with severe burns to her face, upper body and arms. Litzi had rolled into an open fire.

If she's returned to Bolivia, it's likely she would live out her life in an orphanage. But finding an American adoptive family for the little girl likely will be very difficult. Also, currently there are few Bolivian adoptions from the United States. Litzi still needs multiple surgeries; cosmetically she's never going to look normal.

"She's missing an ear and half her face and she's missing a hand," Greenlee said. But within minutes of meeting her, most people tend to notice her "bright spirit," Greenlee said.

"It keeps me up at night, worrying about her," Greenlee said. "It's the future of a child's life and it's a lot of responsibility."

Vance said Greenlee's dedication is total. "She is so committed," she said. "She never gives up. She never takes a vacation from it."

Each year for the past six years, Greenlee has also helped coordinate an annual surgical mission trip Children of the Americas makes to Guatemala. The next one starts Jan. 20. They expect to perform more than 120 surgeries. Each surgery patient gets a UK duffel with a blanket, baby bottles, shoes and socks. Greenlee said the families always seem thrilled to receive the bag. Generally, they carry items in garbage bags.

"It's hard to fathom that kind of need in the United States," she said.

Greenlee nominated for volunteer award
Jody Greenlee's work has been noticed outside Kentucky. She's been nominated for the annual Volvo for Life Awards. Volvo has selected five inspiring people from each state; the public can vote for favorites through Feb. 4. Six finalists with the most votes each get $25,000 for the charity of their choice. The three winners each get $50,000 for a charity. To vote, go to


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