S. Florida group helps radiation victim heal

By Christy McKerney
Staff Writer

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South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Aug 12,2002

He made his living in Costa Rica, listening to other people's problems.

Now Mario Moya Alfonso, a psychologist who says he was once recruited by Harvard Medical School, has his own troubles.  They've consumed his livelihood.  Now they threaten his life.

He has come to South Florida with the help of a Fort Lauderdale-based Christian foundation to repair the terrible damage from a radiation accident seven years ago at San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José, Costa Rica.

An overdose of radiation zapped Alfonso's cancer cells, but left him exposed to other dangers.

The accident eventually led to an inability to swallow and eat solid food.  He lost his ear. He takes morphine for constant, excruciating pain. And he is constantly threatened with infection through the non-healing wounds on the side of his head.

But with the help of Fort Lauderdale-based Small World Foundation, which has agreed to pay for his treatment and surgery, Alfonso hopes to restore his quality of life.

The 52-year-old Costa Rican native considers himself lucky.  Alfonso is staying with relatives in Miami while he travels every day to Broward County to receive help he hopes will close his wounds ad make his face whole again.

"God was with me", Alfonso said recently from his cousin Mercy Hernandez's house in Cooper City.

He lived.  He has hope.  Other patients who mistakenly received dangerous doses of radiation from the same machine died, he said.

It took a year and a half for radiation symptoms to become so severe they realized they would die, Alfonso said through his cousin.

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As his own tissue continued to deteriorate, Alfonso left his job as a psychologist to go on full disability.  He said he continued to visit the hospital daily to have his wounds scraped, and he would see the same employee whose mistake caused him to receive the equivalent of 66 radiation treatments instead of 25.

Every time he went by there, he shook [the technician's] hand, and told them there were no hard feelings," Hernandez said.

Hernandez found the humanitarian organization Small World Foundation on the Internet.  The 7-year –old foundation provides reconstructive and medical aid to people in emerging nations who have no access to medical resources.

The organization agreed to pay for Alfonso's hyperbaric treatment in a South Florida hospital as well as doctor's visits and surgeries to remove dead bone and graft skin over his open wounds.  Fort Lauderdale plastic surgeon Laurence Arnold is donating his time and skills for Alfonso's treatment.  The hospital where the treatments have taken place did not wish to be identified.  And Arnold would not disclose how much the operations cost.

Arnold, who helped found Small World, is raising funds for a mobile hospital that will be based in Honduras, so such operations can be performed in Third World countries that don't have access to modern surgical procedures.

Mercy actually e-mailed us and asked if we could help her," Arnold said.

Alfonso met the organization's criteria: He was in an area with no access to the medical treatment he needed.  He had no financial resources. And he could be helped.

"A zillion people returned to me to tell me they couldn't help, they couldn't help," Hernandez said.

Alfonso has left behind his wife and two young children in Costa Rica to travel to South Florida, where he underwent hyperbaric treatments for several months.  About 10 days ago he underwent surgery to remove infected bone.  He has since returned to stay with family in Miami while a search is made for another doctor to perform reconstructive surgery on his face and the side of the head.

Throughout it all, Hernandez said, her cousin has remained hopeful his wounds will heal, and he will be able to play with his children again.

"He's never asked himself 'Why me?'"  Hernandez said. "Everything has a purpose.  Whatever happened to him has a purpose.

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More information about Small World Foundation can be found at www.smallworld.org/

Christy MdKerney can be reached at cmckerney@sun-sentinel.com or 9+54-572-2008.