Baltimore hospital scrambles to reunite dying daughter with mother

Almost everyone in a Baltimore intensive-care unit is waiting for Petra Diaz Espino to come from Mexico to watch her daughter die.

She might never make it, not before the aggressive leukemia that was diagnosed less than two weeks ago claims her 22-year-old daughter. She might be left only with memories of the youngest of her eight children, the one who always climbed on her lap as child, and the latest of several who crossed the border illegally to seek a better life in the United States.


Petra has been waiting for days at a Texas border crossing as her daughter's doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center call immigration officials again and again to beg on Carla Diaz Espino's behalf.

"I expect her to die," said Dr. Fred Papali, attending physician at the center's medical intensive-care unit. "If someone's going to die, whether they're young or old, they have a right to be surrounded by the people who love them."


Three months ago, Carla was working at a restaurant, living in a Baltimore house with her husband, their two young children and seven other people.

She chatted on the phone with her mother twice a week, listened to music and hollered at her husband for not helping around the house more with their 21/2-year-old son and 15-month-old daughter.

Then she started getting more tired than usual, developing bruises that wouldn't go away.

Doctors told her she was fine to return to work, said sister Fabiola García. One clinic did a test; another said they lost the results, her sister said.

Then, two weeks ago, Carla developed appendicitis. As doctors prepared her for surgery, they noticed problems with her blood.

She was transferred to University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, where doctors diagnosed her with a blood cancer that rarely responds to treatment.

On Friday, doctors told her husband and sister that Carla had just days left, and it was unlikely the woman they knew would wake up again.

"That being said," Papali said, "we recognize our mothers' voices. Clearly, she's recognizing voices.


"I can't predict the future," he said. "Even if it's for one minute of consciousness that she has, it would be absolutely incredible if her mom could be here to see her."

As Carla deteriorated over the past week, the hospital's social workers wrote letters to the State Department and immigration officials.

They reached out to Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; his office has agreed to help try to reunite mother and daughter.

Immigration experts said Petra should be able to apply for a temporary visa, and her daughter's condition would expedite the application process. It doesn't matter that Carla is an undocumented immigrant, they said.

Petra would still need to clear all of the other requirements to get a temporary visa. That includes persuading an immigration official that she is not likely to overstay her visa.

Social worker Bridgette Threat has written letters in similar circumstances to bring in parents and family from Barbados, Japan and different parts of Africa.


"This has been the toughest one," Threat said. "This is the first time that it's been this difficult."

Petra hasn't seen Carla in three years. As Threat, Papali and their colleagues peppered government officials with requests, she took a 12-hour bus ride from her small town northwest of Mexico City to the border crossing at Del Rio, Texas, about 21/2 hours west of San Antonio.

Most of the staff working with Carla didn't meet her until after she could no longer speak, until after blood started pooling in her brain and her lungs.

"When she was still able to move her head, we asked her if she wanted to see our mom," García said through a translator. "She would cry. And she would say yes."

To the hospital staff, the quest to reunite mother and daughter has become personal. In Threat's case, her mother died of breast cancer two days before her second birthday.

"I have essentially lived the life that Carla's daughter and son are about to live," Threat said. She said she would do anything to get their grandmother here.


"I would have loved for someone to have done that for me," she said.

Threat said an immigration officer has told her that Petra's visa was denied because she was deemed a high risk not to return to Mexico.

A State Department official said he could not comment on an individual case.

A spokeswoman from Cardin's office, who was also not authorized to speak specifically on Petra's case, said other factors could also be at play. In general, she said, appeals are possible if new information is presented.

Several times this week, Papali said, he has stepped away from the 14 other critically ill patients in his ICU to tell immigration agents in Del Rio that he thinks they're making a mistake.

The Morning Sun

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"If I'm not going to get her better medically, I still think that's it's my responsibility as a physician to treat the rest of her, the whole person," he said. "And for her, the whole person means family as well."


Carla's husband, Ascencíon Olvera, 26, was stone-faced and stunned Friday as a translator explained that his wife's cancer was incurable.

He said he hadn't brought the children to see their mother recently, not since she became unable to walk and moved into intensive care.

"They're too young," he said through a translator. "They don't understand."

Olvera and García said they'd do anything to bring Carla's mother to her, but they don't know what else to do.