Four weeks ago, Osly St. Preux arrived in Baltimore from his home in Haiti wearing summer clothes and too-tight shoes and with an ugly, gnarled, cancerous mass - one that ended up weighing 3 1/2 pounds - growing out of his right armpit.
The 13-year-old was brought to the United States by Dr. Mojtaba Gashti, chief of vascular surgery at Union Memorial Hospital, who met the boy on a medical pilgrimage he takes to the impoverished nation each spring. Knowing he couldn't help him in Haiti, Gashti slogged through red tape, begged other doctors to volunteer their services and ultimately arranged for Osly and his mother to travel to Baltimore.
Two extensive surgeries later, Gashti and his family threw a party in Osly's honor yesterday at their Ellicott City home. The idea was to let the many people who have asked after him, prayed for him and donated money to his cause meet the teen with the high-wattage smile whom they have heard so much about.
"So many people have really helped and been concerned and asked about him," Gashti said. "I thought, 'Let's just celebrate his recovery.'"
Osly's mother, Natalie Pierre, first brought her son to see Gashti in 2005 at a small hospital run by nuns. They rode for hours on rutted roads to seek medical care for a small fluid-filled cyst that Osly had developed under his right armpit. It was the first time Osly had ever seen a doctor. He was 9. Gashti removed the cyst in a minor procedure, without anesthesia.
The boy was back in May when Gashti was on his annual trip. This time, Osly had a growth so large that Gashti knew he had to do something drastic. At best, Osly would lose his arm but more likely die if nothing was done. Shouldering a large chunk of the expense, Gashti brought Osly to Union Memorial.
"It's a big relief for her [Pierre] because if the doctor didn't bring him here and do what he did, he would have died in Haiti, because nobody there would have done that for him," said Jacqueline Nerette, a Haitian native who lives in Baltimore and has befriended the family in the past few weeks.
Nerette, who manages the glaucoma program for the Maryland Society for Sight, met Osly after she read about him in The Baltimore Sun the day before his surgery. Moved by the story, she called the hospital and volunteered to translate for Osly and his mother, a desperately needed service. When Osly was in the hospital, doctors called on her at all hours. In the weeks since, she has helped with things as seemingly minor as explaining how to use a microwave.
"He's back to being a boy, being a kid again," Gashti said yesterday, as he sat on a couch with Osly at his side. Osly had trouble taking his eyes off the cartoon showing on the flat-screen television nearby. Osly, whose home has no electricity or running water, has become entranced by TV.
He has gone for bicycle rides with Gashti's 15-year-old son, Joshua, and kicked around a soccer ball. Given the extent of the surgeries, Gashti has been "holding my breath" that Osly doesn't fall. In addition to having the tumor removed - which was deeper than a pre-surgery CT scan indicated - Osly also had a skin flap made to cover the wound and a skin graft on his thigh to cover where the flap was taken.
Gashti has been amazed by the resilience of Osly, who is off antibiotics and pain medication. Now, the key is making sure Osly does physical therapy, straightening and lifting the arm to minimize scar tissue and to ensure he recovers a full range of motion. Osly has been holding his arm bent and close to his side - something he could not do when he arrived, because of the tumor. Yesterday, Gashti, with Nerette's help, drilled in the importance of exercising the arm.
"If you keep your arm like this, you're not going to be able to use your arm and then the surgery's going to be for nothing," he told Osly. "I know it hurts, but you need to keep doing a little more every day."
Osly and Pierre have been staying at Gashti's home, where the language barrier has at times been difficult. One thing Osly has perfected is his own version of sign language to tell Gashti's wife, Leida, that he is hungry. It's a sign he uses quite often, she said.
Osly's medical visa expires March 9. Gashti hopes to see Osly for a checkup in May, when the doctor returns to Haiti for his annual medical mission.
It will be quite an adjustment for the boy and his mother to leave here and return to their one-room home. But they know this life-saving adventure must end, an adventure that could not have happened without Gashti and his family.
"Not many people would do what they have done," Nerette said. "There will be a special place in heaven for them."