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Area family hosts El Salvadoran child in U.S. for heart surgery

BRADENTON — A quiet, little girl with wide expressive eyes clutched a teddy bear and balloons Tuesday afternoon in a Bradenton couple’s home.

For 2-year-old Lixi Johana Ramirez Ascencio, of El Salvador, she had just made the trip of a lifetime.

Lixi is one of 38 children from El Salvador who boarded planes Tuesday to fly to various cities where open heart surgery will be performed to correct a congenital heart defect, said Tim Milligan, a board member for Gift of Life International. The organization is a nonprofit that helps children around the world receive needed heart surgery.

“I’m so glad my daughter has a chance to live,” said Blanca Ramirez Ascencio, Lixi’s mother, through an interpreter. “It’s been hard. She gets tired very quickly. She can’t play. Lixi will want to do things, but she can’t do them.”

According to Gift of Life International’s website, one in five children perish waiting for surgery.

Without the surgery, Ramirez Ascencio said, “There really aren’t options.”

Lixi has a hole in her heart, meaning blood may be pumped from one side to the other, but it doesn’t circulate through her entire body.

The condition causes her to tire easily and have trouble gaining weight.

Lixi is able to receive the surgery thanks to a partnership between Rotary Club of Bradenton, Gift of Life International and All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

The Rotary Club paid $5,000 to bring Lixi and her mother to stay in Bradenton as they prepare for the surgery scheduled for next week.

Gift of Life often partners with local Rotary clubs to finance the trip, find sites where children can have surgery and work with local hospitals to set up the operation.

All Children’s Hospital has a cardiologist on staff who is donating his time for the surgery. Normally, the procedure would cost the family about $25,000 with about $5,000 to $8,000 in doctor’s fees.

Lixi, who is the youngest of five children, comes from a household which earns about $3 a month. Her father works the fields growing beans and corn. Her mother stays at home and makes some money raising chickens.

This is the first time a child has come to Bradenton to stay for a surgery. The program has been in existence since 1975.

“I stepped in and said, ‘We want to do this,’” said Milligan, who is also a Rotarian. “We’re tremendously excited to have her here. We don’t speak a lot of Spanish in this house, but we have a lot of friends who do. We think it’s going to work great.”

Lixi is expected to stay in the hospital four to 10 days recovering and later return to stay with Milligan, and his wife, Sharon, before heading back home to her small town of Tacuba.

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