'Long shot' chance proves lifesaving

La Misión is a small, coastal Baja town.

Well, actually, in reality three small communities make up the larger area called La Misión, population 920, according to the 2010 census.

Most of the roads are dirt. There isn't a single stoplight, though there is one stop sign, randomly positioned down one of its dirt roads.

There are a handful of small restaurants — a panadería (bakery), a tortilleria (tortilla maker) and two small tiendas (stores), with a scattering of abarrotes (smaller stores) throughout the neighborhoods.

There are two main churches — one Catholic and one Protestant/Pentecostal.

There is a baseball field of dirt that is unusable during the winter months, as it is lower than the surrounding area and thus turns into a lake. The soccer field, also mainly dirt, seems to have a better location that avoids some of this flooding.

The rodeo grounds are used frequently during the year, and by far the biggest event there is the annual Festival of La Misión — part folkloric dancing competition, part carnival, part rodeo — with real live bulls and bucking broncos that sometimes have been known to jump the ring's fence and get lassoed by real cowboys on horseback.

In almost every way, La Misión is a town that has, basically, nothing in common with Newport Beach.

Except that the two happen to be, on a civic level, sister cities. Well, technically, Newport Beach is Sister Cities with the Ensenada region and Baja cities — but, being within the Ensenada region, La Misión falls under that umbrella.

Another connection? I am a Newport native — born at Hoag Hospital, attended Newport Heights Elementary School, Ensign Middle School and Newport Harbor High School, went to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, learned to sail at the Balboa Yacht Club, took cotillion at the Balboa Bay Club and took my first jump from the high dive at the Newport Harbor High pool.

Now I live in a house my grandparents built in La Misión.

But there is another, newer connection that is perhaps the most heartwarming and the most profound.

For one of La Misión's residents — who is one of 15 kids, a father of three, the son of a farmer, a brother to a local baseball player and a worker at the local La Fonda restaurant — he recently made is about to make his first visit to Newport Beach. It's a visit that, literally, he hopes to be lifesaving.

Jose, called Jimmy by friends and family, has a serious heart condition: a coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta.

Sarah Mayer, a physician assistant working at a local medical clinic housed in the Pentecostal church, first diagnosed Jimmy a year ago. Over the course of the past year, she worked with Jimmy, progressing through Baja's medical system, up to the General Hospital in Tijuana. It became clear to Mayer that Jimmy's condition required more resources than were available there.

One night last fall I was at a birthday party when I met Sarah. As we talked the conversation turned toward Jimmy.

"What we really need at this point is a miracle," she said. Without treatment, Jimmy would not make it much longer.

"Well, I happen to know some folks connected with Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach — I can at least ask," I said. As a Presbyterian minister I am a part of the Los Ranchos Presbytery, which has had a longstanding relationship with Hoag, also Presbyterian, for work done as far away as Kenya and as nearby as Santa Ana.

We both knew it was a long shot. But being the only thing I could do, I figured it couldn't hurt.

As I went home that night after the party it struck me that, were I the one to have that heart condition, I likely would not die from it — or, at the very least, I would likely not die from a lack of treatment for it. Though Jimmy and I are neighbors, and though I walk my dog every morning along the dirt road that goes past his father's farm, we come from vastly different worlds.

It seemed to me that it was not only my responsibility, but my obligation to at least ask on Jimmy's behalf.

So, I sent out a few emails. I contacted the Rev. Don Oliver, Presbyterian chaplain at Hoag, as well as friends from St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, where I grew up, and St. Mark Presbyterian Church, which, along with St. Andrew's, has sponsored my calling as a Presbyterian minister.

After a few emails and conversations, we managed to get Jimmy's medical information to Newport Beach and into the right hands. At that point, all there was to do was wait. Hoag Chief Executive Dr. Richard Afable assured me that he would give Jimmy's case every possible consideration.

But, if I'm honest, I still didn't really think there was much hope. I know, I'm a minister — I'm supposed to be more optimistic than that, aren't I? It just seemed so unlikely that Hoag — beautiful, state of the art, with scenic views of the Newport Harbor — would be willing to accept a patient, who had nothing to offer in return, for a risky and expensive lifesaving, though also potentially life-threatening, surgery.

That was back in the fall.

Last week we got the news. Sarah told me when I stopped by the clinic to find out the latest.

"Hoag agreed to do the surgery," she said, with tears in her eyes. They quickly spread to mine as well.

Jimmy had open-heart surgery Feb. 24. It was led by surgeon Dr. Anthony Caffarelli.

Ever since, that team has created a "bridge" that bypasses the damaged area of Jimmy's heart. That bridge, which has spread in the communities of La Misión and Newport Beach, seems to be healing more than one heart.

Editor's note: Erin Dunigan is a Newport Beach native who works as a Presbyterian minister in Baja Mexico.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad