By Joe Southern
Dr. John Breinholt is used to going to underprivileged areas of Central and South America on medical mission trips.
Last March, the mission came to him.
The Missouri City doctor and his family opened up their home to a 10-month-old Venezuelan boy and his mother who came to Houston for life-saving heart surgery at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“If he had not come he probably would have died within the next five months,” Breinholt said of Juan Escalante. “Now there is no reason he won’t live a normal life.”
Juan and his mother, Milagros Escobar, were guests with the Breinholts through a nonprofit organization called HeartGift. The program provides lifesaving heart surgery to children from around the world where specialized medical treatment is either scarce or nonexistent.
“The generosity of the Houston community to provide the partnerships which made this surgery a reality for Juan are truly a blessing,” said Executive Director Rachael Wright.
Breinholt is the chief of pediatric cardiology at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Juan’s surgery was performed by Dr. Robert Hanfland, pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and UTHealth.
Mother and son arrived in Houston from Valencia, Venezuela, on March 19 and spent four weeks as guests of the Breinholts in their Missouri City home.
“When we brought him into our home, I wasn’t entirely prepared for how scrawny he was,” Breinholt said. “He was very underweight.”
Even though Juan was well fed, his heart condition hindered his growth.
“He was 10 months old but he was wearing three-month-old clothing,” Breinholt said. “He wasn’t rolling over, he wasn’t sitting up at all and he was not holding a bottle.”
In the month he was here, Juan gained three pounds, started sitting up and now holds a bottle.
“He said ma-ma for the first time,” Breinholt said.
He said HeartGift pairs patients with families with people who speak their native language. Breinholt speaks Spanish and his daughters are taking it in school, so they could communicate a little bit. Breinholt said he lived for a while in Argentina and has been on numerous medical mission trips.
“Medical mission work is something I’m passionate about,” he said.
His wife Diana has joined him before but his four children haven’t had the experience yet.
“It was a great introduction for the kids to see something I do,” he said.
Escobar stayed with her son at the hospital for the week and a half he was there for the surgery and recovery. That was convenient for them and Breinholt, who works there.
“I got to see him quite a bit,” he said.
Once he was discharged, Juan and Escobar stayed two more weeks with the Breinholts. In that short time the two families formed a close bond. Breinholt said it was beneficial for his children to have the experience.
“You sometimes need to see kids like this,” he said.
Diana Breinholt took Escobar on a shopping trip just before they were scheduled to depart back to Venezuela.
“My wife took her shopping and got her a ton of stuff that she couldn’t get in Venezuela,” he said.
The departure of mother and son at Bush Intercontinental Airport was not an easy one.
“Tears were shed by my children and wife when they left,” he said.
Breinholt said Juan was making a rapid recovery but still has a ways to go.
“His prognosis is much, much better than when he started. There are some changes that need to be made that will take time,” he said.
He continues to stay in touch with the family and will follow Juan’s recovery.
Although this is the first time the Breinholts have taken in a HeartGift child, it probably won’t be the last.
“People need to realize it’s not a big deal. If you have a spare bedroom you can do this,” he said.
It’s likely that he will soon have another opportunity to host a child in need of heart surgery. Children’s Memorial Herman Hospital takes in six HeartGift children each year.
“It really was not a burden. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
To learn more about HeartGift, visit www.heartgift.org.