Major fundraising effort moves young heart patient from Cayman to Florida

Andy Reyes and his mom Karen spent more than four months at Health City while awaiting his next procedure.

Thirteen-year-old Andy Reyes will be getting a heart transplant thanks to the efforts and donations of thousands of strangers who raised more than $500,000 for his surgery.

Andy, who had spent a record 134 days on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, was moved from Health City Cayman Islands to the University of Florida Congenital Heart Center Saturday.

His treatment, which costs a total of US$1.3 million, was made possible by donations to a fundraising page on GoFundMe.com.

Andy, who comes from the Dominican Republic, was joined by his mother Karen Reyes, who made the flight from Cayman to Gainesville, Florida, on Sunday.

“These months have been a time of happiness, sadness,” Ms. Reyes told the Compass. “When they told us the total cost of the surgery, we thought we would never make it. It’s a miracle from God. Thanks to our faith, our prayers and everyone who has been united with the cause, that have helped us and made this possible.”

Andy has had four previous heart surgeries, the first of which occurred shortly after his birth. He had valve replacements in 2011 and again in 2017.

He arrived at Health City on Sept. 14 last year. At that point, the boy was so weak  that no hospital would accept him for a transplant.

Over weeks and months, his prognosis improved as his story reached more and more people. The move from Health City was a sign of progress for the Reyes family, but Karen Reyes said it was a little bittersweet to leave the staff that has taken such good care of them since September.

“It’s like an adventure, a never-ending road,” she said of her family’s ordeal. “It’s like an odyssey. Arriving here was finding myself with a family, finding myself with really excellent people, humanitarian, caring people that would hug me when every day when I was crying. They have given me strength.”

Dr. Binoy Chattuparambil, a senior cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon at Health City, was in charge of caring for Andy, and said Saturday that a team endeavor kept the teen healthy all this time. The ECMO machine that saved his life requires constant vigilance from the staff attending it.

“I would like to thank my team, especially the nurses,” Dr. Chattuparambil said. “It’s not easy to manage ECMO for four-plus months without any infections or complications. Usually, ECMO is associated with a lot of complications, so most places don’t keep patients on it more than a couple of weeks.”

Once Andy had been stabilized, it fell to Dr. Chattuparambil to find a facility that could perform the transplant. He contacted many hospitals around the world before finally settling on the University of Florida facility. The procedure Andy needs costs US$1.3 million, and many hospitals would not accept him as a patient unless they had a deposit of US$800,000 for his treatment.

Into that void stepped two women – Gisela Bolivar Carrasco of Bolivia and Laurie Braun, the treasurer of New Jersey-based nonprofit Gift of Life N.J. Together, said Dr. Chattuparambil, they began sowing the seeds of a social media campaign that would impact people around the world.

Ms. Carrasco, the doctor said, met the Reyes family while on another humanitarian trip, and she left her job to concentrate full-time on raising funds. Ms. Braun has been involved in helping the Reyes family for years, and together with Ms. Carrasco, she quickly set about working on an impossible goal.

“It was their determination,” Dr. Chattuparambil said. “They went ahead and made it happen.”

Chuck Mobley, founder of Cayman company Polar Bear Air Conditioning, was one of the many people touched by the social media campaign. As he learned more about the Reyes family, he decided he had to find a way to help.

So he sent out an email to his staff, and he told them he would match whatever they donated to the Reyes family. Polar Bear Air Conditioning donated $12,000 to the Reyes family’s treatment fund, and then the company began redirecting its normal advertising to publicize Andy’s plight.

“We focused all of our marketing efforts on saving Andy,” Mr. Mobley said. “In this type of situation, air conditioning and plumbing and appliances become unimportant.”

As the weeks went by, Mr. Mobley saw more and more people joining the campaign.

Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz made a sizable donation and wished Andy a happy birthday in October; and Latin musicians Bad Bunny, Ozuna, Arcangel, Daddy Yankee, Wisin and Killadamente all were vocal in their support of the Reyes family cause on social media.

More than 22,000 people have donated to Andy on GoFundMe.com. The fundraising total stood at $521,553 as of press time Monday. That total – though well short of the fund’s goal of $800,000 – may have saved Andy’s life and spurred his transfer to the hospital in Florida.

“I’m watching this thing and I’m seeing people that are giving $5 or $7, and then you have people giving $5,000. It’s just amazing,” Mr. Mobley said. “Sometimes we think about how bad the world is, and how everyone’s really selfish. We’ve had close to 23,000 people donate something, and the vast majority of these people don’t know Andy. … People are donating their money, trusting that it’s the real thing, and it’s touched me.”

Andy does not yet know when he will receive his transplant, and Dr. Chattuparambil said the Gainesville hospital staff will assess the patient’s condition for weeks before prepping him for surgery.

“He should do well. There’s no doubt about that” he said. “He’s a fighter. If he could fight for those four months, he’ll fight it out. That hospital has a very good pediatric heart transplant [program]. His heart was showing some improvement as of late in the pumping. So that’s what they want to assess.”

The medical staff began the delicate process of switching Andy from the Health City ECMO machine to a portable one for his journey on Saturday, and as they did, his mother Karen spent time walking around the hospital and hugging the many staff members who had become family to her and her son over the last four months.

While Andy still has a long road ahead of him as he awaits his transplant, the Reyes family says there is no way to adequately express their gratitude.

“They’ve treated him like family. This is like another family and it’s painful to leave,” Ms. Reyes said. “All of these people have given him so much love. He doesn’t know he’s getting a heart transplant. We’ve simply told him he is going to have a more serious treatment than he got here to be able to survive.”

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