After receiving heart surgery, a teenage boy and his family are entirely changed by Christ’s love.
In a little more than a year, Rodrigo’s life has completely changed. He came to the U.S. in October 2015 as a sick 15-year-old, barely able to walk. His mother, Nelida, had first noticed that something was wrong with him when he was just 2 months old. But no one believed her, and they lived in the outskirts of the Bolivian salt flats, far from any clinics or hospitals.
Rodrigo’s condition worsened as he got older, and by the time he was 14, Nelida knew she had to do something. She asked her brother, who lived La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to help her. Rodrigo’s uncle knew of a cardiologist and offered to take him. It was then that Rodrigo was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and directed to the Children’s Heart Project.
“Rodrigo’s condition at presentation was so severe probably because of a combination of things,” said Dr. Allison Cabalka, a pediatric cardiologist who eventually treated Rodrigo. “He was 15 years of age, and things progress more the older you get, and he was also living at very high altitude.”
Rodrigo was accepted for heart surgery at the hospital where Allison works in Minnesota. He was nervous about the surgery but not as nervous as his mother.
“The interpreters talked to him about the future and how much better it would be to have a full life,” said Dave Verburg, a Children’s Heart Project host father who spent many days with Rodrigo in the hospital. “And he became strong after that. And not too long after that, he asked me to stay with his mom. It’s so unfamiliar to her; she was really scared. He kind of got strong for his mom.”
Rodrigo’s improvement after surgery was obvious. His fingers and lips were a healthy pink color instead of dark purple. He was able to walk more than a few steps at a time. Within weeks, he was able to return home.
On the journey home, Nelida accepted Christ. Although Rodrigo already had a relationship with Christ before his surgery, that relationship was strengthened during his time in the U.S.
“You know, when you pray to God, He really listens to you,” he told his interpreter. “I asked Him to heal me, and He did.”
In December 2016, Allison and her husband, Jeff, visited Bolivia to screen children with heart defects for the Children’s Heart Project. While they were there, they also visited former Children’s Heart Project patients, including Rodrigo.
Since Rodrigo returned home, his whole family has become involved in the local church where his uncle is the pastor. They attend the Sunday service and a Bible study, along with other activities throughout the week.
“It was really encouraging,” Allison said. “It really just showed us the incredible transformation that can come from seeing God provide for physical needs and then the spiritual things come after that. That’s what we hope for.”
Jeff and Allison spent some time with Rodrigo’s brothers and were encouraged in their interactions. Before Rodrigo’s surgery, his brothers used to make fun of him often. He wasn’t able to play with them, and they regularly put him down because of his condition and because he couldn’t help his family on their farm. Since he has returned home changed, their relationship has improved.
“You could see that [his brothers are happy he is healed] in the way they were treating each other,” Jeff said. “It’s really, really cool to see how that is changing their relationship too.”
“He Put His Hands Together and Looked at the Sky”
The drive to the family’s village is long, and Nelida wasn’t home when Jeff and Allison arrived because she had left early in the morning to travel to a village to buy vegetables. She takes this long trip once every 15 days. The next day, she returns with her produce to sell. To spend more time with the family and to see Nelida, the Cabalkas decided to spend the night.
The next day, after breakfast, Rodrigo took them on a tour of his village. Although school was out for break, Rodrigo wanted to show the couple where he attends. Before his surgery, he had to squat several times to catch his breath before he finished the walk, but these days, he has no problem walking the short distance.
“We had more trouble walking because it’s 11,000 feet altitude,” Allison said. “[Rodrigo was] just rocking and rolling.”
Rodrigo’s principal was at the school, so Allison and Jeff talked with him. He told them that when Rodrigo returned, he wanted to show “Facing the Giants” to his classmates and tell his story. The principal liked the idea so much that he asked Rodrigo to share not just with his classmates but with the whole school.
“He said that Rodrigo is a totally different boy,” Allison said. “He’s happy. He has energy. He plays football. He could walk to school [before surgery], but he walked slow and then he could never do anything when he was at school. Now he’s playing football and able to run and keep up with his classmates and be physically active. He can help on the quinoa farm, which is incredibly demanding. He is able to just run and do the things that he could never do.”
The Cabalkas saw that Rodrigo had not only had an impact on his school principal. His transformation has been obvious to many people in his community. For 15 years, they knew him as the sick kid. Now he’s the healthy kid. That and his faith have been a strong witness to Christ’s power.
That afternoon, Allison conducted a quick follow-up examination on Rodrigo in the courtyard at his home.
“As soon as I gave him a thumbs-up sign and said everything is really good, he just put his hands together and looked at the sky,” Allison said through tears. “It was amazing—the power of transformation.”
Restored in Christ
Although the Cabalkas didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Nelida, they saw that her life has been transformed as well.
“The transformation in her life is just incredible,” Jeff said. “She’s got this demeanor to her that’s just softer, she’s got a smile on her face all the time, she’s much more engaging and goofing around with us more than she ever did in Rochester. It was really fun to see. We can always just chalk it up to Jesus being in their life more.”
When it was time for the Cabalkas to leave, Nelida cried. It was a touching moment because, before Rodrigo’s surgery, Nelida wouldn’t even smile. But after a long journey to healing, God saved Rodrigo’s life—and Nelida found restoration and eternal peace in the process.