Most children take their first steps by age 1 or 2. But Marie, a little girl from Haiti, took her first steps recently, at age 9.

Born with clubfeet in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Marie hobbled or crawled and did not attend school, fearing scorn from classmates.

But pro-bono surgery at Rush Oak Park Hospital in February changed all that.

“Marie is taking some steps. She walks with a walker now,” boasted Franco Valdemar, her host family father in Waukegan.

Dr. Jeffrey Sawyer, a pediatric orthopedic specialist with Midwest Orthopedics at Rush, made the initial contact with Marie.

“Childspring International sent us a photograph of her. They couldn’t send us an X-ray. Her family lives in a farming village where there isn’t even a telephone, let alone the Internet,” he said.

Childspring International matches children from poorer countries who need expensive medical treatments with doctors and hospitals in the United States.

Of course each doctor is not an island. Sawyer had to enlist the help of a surgical team as well as Rush Oak Park Hospital itself.

“We had more than enough people who wanted to volunteer their time and talent,” said Sawyer. “Dr. Simon Lee, a foot and ankle specialist, helped with the surgery. Dr. Ahmed Elborno was the anesthesiologist. Sue Gilpin was our physician’s assistant, plus all the nurses. There were probably 10 to 12 people total. It was a tremendous team effort.”

Rush Oak Park Hospital was chosen as the venue for the surgery for its small size and efficiency. It was done on a Saturday, when the case load is lighter.

Bruce Elegant, chief executive officer at Rush Oak Park Hospital, estimates 30 people were involved in Marie’s care, including dieticians, social workers, and others involved in the follow up after surgery.

“It was an effort on behalf of everyone to support the mission of the hospital, which is to serve the community . . . in keeping with the traditions of Catholic health care,” he said.

The dollar total for such a surgery would have normally approached $50,000, according to Sawyer.

Clubfoot is the most common birth defect, occurring in one in every 200 to 300 babies. Researchers don’t know the cause, and some think there might be a genetic component.

“It might be related to how the baby is positioned inside the mom,” suggested Sawyer. “If you have a big baby and a small mom the feet are kind of tucked underneath. We don’t fully know.

“Marie’s clubfeet were way worse than what we see in the United States and pretty bad compared to what we see in the rest of the world,” he added, because “in the United States we treat kids before they’re walking on their feet, by 9 to 12 months.”

Sawyer has performed between 100 and 200 clubfoot surgeries in places as far away as Malawi, Africa, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he has been a visiting professor of orthopedic surgery.

Healing the whole child

Certainly Marie has had the best of care physically. But she had a rocky beginning after her arrival here in the United States. Speaking only Haitian Creole, she couldn’t communicate with her first host family. She also missed her parents and three brothers and three sisters desperately.

Then Childspring International found Franco and Carole Valdemar and their 5-year-old daughter, Caroline. The family is from Haiti, speaks Creole, and agreed to host Marie in their Waukegan home.

“Poor Marie was crying every day before she came here. She wanted to go back to Haiti. But now she is happy. She has no problem at all,” said Franco, a minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America.

Sawyer confirmed this. “That family has been instrumental. She wouldn’t have done nearly as well without them. Surgery is surgery, but that is such a small part of her total care. It is really the after care that is the majority of the work.”

Finding the right host family for Marie fulfilled Childspring’s mission to heal the whole child: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Helen Shepard, director of development for Childspring International, addressed meeting these needs: “Sometimes people like Marie are shunned by their community and don’t attend school. By correcting her physical deformity, this will open many doors. So Childspring will follow up with an educational scholarship for her back in Haiti.”

For her part, Marie looks forward to walking, running and playing with family and friends in Haiti. She even has an idea for a new business from her stay in Illinois: packaging and selling snow.

Childspring International seeks the following help: hosting a child; supporting a host family; sharing contacts in the medical, corporate and civic community; donations; and simply spreading the word to others. Visit or write to Childspring International, 1328 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30309-3902, or phone 404-228-7744.

Join the discussion on social media!