'Michi' story won Pottsville hearts

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`Michi,'' came here through the efforts of a Peace Corps nurse, Mrs. Betty Stuart

`Michi,'' came here through the efforts of a Peace Corps nurse, Mrs. Betty Stuart

'Michi' story won Pottsville hearts

By Ione Geier

Special Correspondent

Editor's Note: This is the second of special correspondent Ione Geier's eight favorite pieces published over the last quarter century. It originally appeared on July 7,1976.

Seven months ago, a little Indian girl was barely alive in a corner of a hut where she lived with her poverty-stricken parents in the hills of Ecuador.

Today, the bright-eyed 2-year-old is in the United States for medical evaluation and treatment. Mercedes Perugachi -- her nickname is ``Michi,'' rhyming with ``peachy'' -- came here through the efforts of a Peace Corps nurse, Mrs. Betty Stuart, and two Pottsville women, Mrs. Leah Shugars and Mrs. Marge Roxandich.

The chain of events that brought Michi to this country from Ecuador began Jan. 1, 1976. Usually, New Year's Day is a time for fresh beginnings, but in Michi's case the first day of the year almost meant the end of the child's life.

Her parents, highland Indians separated from the rest of the world by the physical barriers of the Andes and the equally formidable obstacles of language, illiteracy and poverty, were working in the fields. They had left Michi in the one-room, dirt-floor hut that is their home, but somehow the child managed to make her way outside to where the family pig was tethered.

According to reports, Michi got into the pig's food, and the animal gnawed her left arm to just above the wrist and the right arm to within an inch of the elbow.

They looked for shroud

When Michi's parents, Jose and Maria Perugachi, came home and found her lying in a ``lake of blood,'' they felt sure that the child was going to die. Wrapping her in rags, they placed her in a corner of the hut and went to look for white clothes in which to bury her.

In spite of the tremendous loss of blood, Michi clung stubbornly to life. But it wasn't until three days later that the Perugachis, urged on by a relative, sought medical assistance in a nearby village.

The doctor there was pessimistic. Throwing up his hands in despair after examining the almost lifeless child, he said, ``There is nothing I can do. But she might have a chance if you can get her to a hospital.''

The hospital in Quito is only 36 miles from the Perugachi home but it took the parents with their dying child almost a day and a half to make the trip -- first on foot to the nearest town with public transportation, then by bus over the mountainous roads to the capital city.

It was at the hospital in Quito that Betty Stuart, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to the rehabilitation department, first encountered Michi. Five days had gone by since the accident.

``As soon as her wounds were cleaned up,'' Mrs. Stuart recalled, ``the doctors rushed her into surgery where they amputated the tendons and the bones that the pig hadn't eaten and performed a skin graft. Then they turned her over to me.''

An unusual case

As a rehabilitation nurse, Mrs. Stuart was accustomed to working with adults suffering from strokes or spinal cord injuries rather than with small children who had lost their hands. To compound the problem, her young patient was so weak that she was scarcely able to move.

``My first thought was, `What am I going to do with her?' I started off by feeding her to gain her confidence, then gradually encouraged her to play simple games that provided exercise for her arms.

``When she grew stronger, I took her to the park where she ate her first ice cream cone and threw herself on the ground over and over again for sheer joy of falling on grass.

``That was the first time I heard her laugh.''

After several months with Mrs. Stuart, Michi was smiling and laughing almost constantly. She was also feeding herself with a spoon held in place by a suede arm band and picking up even very small objects.

Gratified by the little girl's progress, Mrs. Stuart nevertheless realized Michi needed specialized attention impossible to obtain in Ecuador. With the approval of the Perugachis, she was appointed the child's legal guardian, answerable for her welfare to the International Social Services of America.

``Sometimes the responsibility sort of overwhelmed me,'' acknowledged the 50-year-old divorcee who has two daughters and five grandsons living out West.

Coaldale connection

``But I knew that it was the only thing to do if I wanted to get Michi to the United States for advanced medical treatment.''

Joseph Roberts Pislak, formerly of Coaldale and working as an electrical engineer in Ecuador, provided the contact between the continents that resulted in Mrs. Stuart and Michi coming to America July 22.

Pislak had met Michi in the hospital in Quito. While visiting in Pottsville in June, he told the story of the courageous little girl and her Peace Corps guardian to his sister, Mrs. Roxandich, and her neighbor, Mrs. Shugars. Both woman immediately offered to do whatever they could to help.

Mrs. Shugars began by contacting her father, Fred Hatter, president of the Schuylkill County Society for Crippled Children.

The organization's funds are reserved for county people but Mrs. Hatter and Mrs. Margaret Lesher, executive director, arranged to have Michi admitted to the Alfred I. DuPont Institute, Wilmington, Del., as a research patient. They also offered the society's facilities for handling contributions to help Michi.

$200 salary tapped

The financial problems involved in helping Michi are great. Although, Mrs. Shugars and Mrs. Roxandich made all arrangements for bringing Michi here, the trip was paid for by Mrs. Stuart. Her Peace Corps salary is only $200 a month and she had to borrow money for the plane tickets.

Living expenses will be another consideration for a long time to come. At the moment (in 1976), Mrs. Stuart, who had lived in California before joining the Peace Corps, and Michi are the guests of Mrs. Roxandich and her husband, George, at their home on Third Avenue.

However, specialists at the DuPont Institute who examined Michi last Saturday plan to fit her with an artificial arm next week.

``There will be an initial hospital stay of two weeks, then it will be in and out of the institute until November when Michi and I will go back to Ecuador for several months,'' Mrs. Stuart explained. ``All told, the doctors say that rehabilitation will take 15 years.''

The lengthy program doesn't intimidate the Peace Corps volunteer. But she's reluctant to discuss her own part in helping Michi.

``If anything, just say that Michi has given new meaning to my life,'' she said. ``Through her, I've found out that people can be pretty darn wonderful. Because of their help, a little girl with all the odds stacked against her is being given a chance to lead a normal, useful life.''

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Story Source: Pottsville Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ecuador; Service



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