MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A girl from Honduras celebrated her 14th birthday in Memphis Feb. 8, and thanks to an army of big-hearted Memphians she has a whole new lease on life.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?” this reporter asked Sherlen weeks after successful heart surgery Jan. 17.
Laughing, the Spanish-speaking teenager replied through an interpreter, “I want to be a cardiologist.”
It’s moments like these that warms the heart of Bill Pickens, founder of Gift of Life Mid-South. The organization helps facilitate life-saving heart surgery for children from mostly third world countries across the globe.
”These families come in. They don’t speak the language, they don’t have any friends and their child is facing a life or death situation, so it’s a great ministry for us,” Pickens told WMC Action News 5 during an interview after a meeting of his Rotary Club of East Memphis.
It all began in 2009 when Pickens, now 74, heard a Rotary speaker tell about the origins of the Gift of Life program where surgeons in New York City saved a Ugandan girl in 1975.
In service in Memphis since 2009, Gift of Life Mid-South has provided surgery for congenital heart defects for 100 children from a dozen countries including Uganda, the People’s Republic of China, Kosovo, Cuba, the Philippines and across Latin America from Belize, Panama and many from Sherlen’s home country of Honduras.
Pickens, a gifted and enthusiastic amateur photographer, takes portraits of each child, which Le Bonheur hangs in a hallway in the pediatric cardiac unit.
“They come in huffing and puffing and can barely breathe, and after their surgery, within two weeks, they’re running up and down the stairs,” said Pickens.
“They all have a little story to tell, some longer than others,” said heart surgeon Dr. Umar Boston who walks through the hallway lined with Pickens’ pictures of children who are alive and healthy today thanks to the Gift of Life program.
“It’s fulfilling every day to get up and go to the operating room and as you said, you’re saving a baby’s life basically every day,” said Dr. Boston who was born in Guyana and raised in Australia.
Dr. Boston says Gift of Life Mid-South’s 100th child milestone has profound meaning.
“That’s quite an accomplishment,” said the heart surgeon. “It’s a way of providing care for underprivileged children who otherwise, realistically, would not make it in their own country since there is no other way to provide for them."
"We are fortunate to have one of the 10 best heart programs in the country for children,” said Michael Wiggins, Le Bonheur’s new CEO.
Wiggins said the hospital’s high ranking in pediatric heart care comes, in part, through sometimes complex cases that Gift of Life patients present to Le Bonheur’s surgeons.
“Gift of Life is an opportunity for them to extend their healing endeavors beyond what they normally might have access to doing,” Wiggins said. “What we are trying to do is really extend the heart of what we’ve developed right here in Memphis at Le Bonheur throughout the world."
Wiggins succeeded long time Le Bonheur CEO Meri Armour seven months ago. Armour pioneered the Gift of Life initiative at Le Bonheur in 2009 and helped make the program possible, approving the care of an average of 10 children each year.
“I fell in love with it. And once you volunteer once, you’ll be there forever,” said Rotarian Stephanie Lawson who chairs the Gift of Life Mid-South board of 15 volunteers.
They unite to help raise $5,000 for each Gift of Life child. Those funds go to Le Bonheur as the hospital quietly absorbs all the other costs that can run up to $200,000 per child.
“We try to give back and we’ve all been given so much and these children that come here come with nothing and we give them a chance of having life,” said Lawson, a realtor and property manager in Olive Branch, Mississippi. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Gift of Life accepts tax deductible donations and holds events like the annual “Save a Heart” Crawfish Boil at the Agricenter International March 20, 2020.
“We have felt the love from everybody here,” said Dilicia Hernandez, Sherlen’s mother.
The pair stayed at FedEx Family House across Poplar Avenue from Le Bonheur, which provided accommodations for their month-long stay that began Jan. 13 and ended on Valentine’s Day 2020. Forty Memphis area Rotary clubs have now joined the Gift of Life partnership, providing transport, meals and Memphis fun once Gift of Life families are well enough to visit places like Huey’s, the Bass Pro Pyramid and the Peabody Ducks.
Sherlen and her mother were even treated to a day of pampering donated by Gould’s Day Spa before their departure on Valentine’s Day.
“I want to thank Gift of Life for this opportunity,” said Dilicia, who sells doughnuts near a beach in Honduras to support herself, Sherlen and her four sisters.
“Without them, this would’ve never happened,” Dilicia said through an interpreter about Gift of Life-Mid-South.
“These parents are scared and I try to be a comforting presence to them,” said Bailey Fountain, a physician’s assistant who cares for Gift of Life children before and after surgery.
Six days after Sherlen’s surgery, Fountain said the teenager was feeling new energy.
“She already feels more active. She wants to go to school. She used to not want to go to school. She’s already recovered so much so fast,” said Fountain.
Sherlen’s energy and long struggle for heart surgery now have her dreaming of becoming a cardiologist to help other children who have heart trouble.
“It’s an experience that I was able to have from my own heart, that’s why I want to do it,” Sherlen said with a smile and new twinkle in her eye.