Carol McAlice Currie, Statesman Journal 7:49 a.m. PST November 18, 2014
-SAL1118TickerTamalesLEDE.jpg_20141114.jpgBuy Photo (Photo: ASHLEY SMITH / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
Carmen Hernandez and her husband Martin Jimenez were fighting the tide when the dismissal bell rang on a recent Friday afternoon at Adam Stephens Middle School.
As most students were rushing off, the Jimenez-Hernandez family was pushing through the front office doors, hauling 18 dozen homemade pork and chicken tamales in two insulated picnic chests.
As they unpacked the steaming bags of cornhusked goodness, individually wrapped in foil, a long line of order-bearers began to form. An after-school announcement that “tamales are here” helped attract a crowd.
Carmen worked frantically to ensure that all members of her Stephens school family — students, faculty, parents — who ordered a dozen or two or three of her secret family recipe snagged their tamales while they were still piping hot.
As methodical and professional as Carmen was fulfilling their orders, it wasn’t because this is business for the stay-at-home mom and her family. For them, it’s a matter of life and death.
Carmen and Martin’s son, Oswaldo, 13, has been fast-tracked for a heart transplant because of a degenerating heart condition.
Oswaldo has pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). As it sounds, it is high blood pressure. But this condition is in the arteries of the 13-year-old’s lungs. It is a relatively rare disease, unlike ordinary hypertension, and affects about one person in 100,000 to 1 million people. It is more common in women, typically in their 30s, and is extremely rare for a boy of Oswaldo’s age. Carmen and her husband were preoccupied this day by the order. The few moments they took to make the delivery allowed them to dwell on something other than their son’s condition. They didn’t seem concerned about taking payment for the tamales, but Leticia Salas, part of the front office staff at the school in northeast Salem, was. She took great pains to collect the cash and update a ledger for the family. who must deduct their supply costs from their profits so they can make more plump masa meals.
Salas knows that at $15 per dozen, Carmen and Martin are $270 closer to having enough money for both of them to accompany Oswaldo to the Lucile Packard Children’s Surgical Hospital at Stanford University next month. There he is scheduled to be evaluated for heart transplant surgery. His condition was first diagnosed at Salem Hospital in 2011, his mother said through Salas, who was translating for the parents. He was then referred to a cardiac specialist at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital shortly afterward, and is an insured member of Kaiser Permanente.
His condition has been deteriorating the past year, and he was recently recommended for a heart transplant, confirmed Thomas Tillery, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente.
It’s a daunting prospect for the slender boy with bright black eyes who said he “really misses playing futbol (soccer).”
It’s also an expensive one for his family.
When Kaiser Permanente referred Oswaldo to the children’s surgical hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., his parents were told the teen would first have to be evaluated by Stanford staff to determine if he was a viable candidate for the transplant surgery, said Carmen. Kaiser informed the parents last week that it would pay for the teen’s transportation and lodging for the few days necessary to make the assessment, as well as that of one “designated companion.”
But it would not pay for both parents to be with their child or for Oswaldo’s younger brother Aviram, 9, to accompany the family.
Carmen recognized immediately that she would not be content to worry from afar, so she hatched a plan.
Adverse to taking money from strangers, she decided to sell her family-and-friends’ favorite tamales in batches to raise the funds necessary to allow her and Aviram to be with Oswaldo and his father. She hand-makes and then delivers them to the school a couple of times weekly.
Salas said the tamales are authentic and delicious, and the line of hungry folks eying the picnic chests as Carmen rushed about seemed to confirm the review.
“Trust me, they’re good. Very good,” Salas said. “I brought some home recently and had a few on a plate ready to eat. I turned around for just a minute to rinse dishes and when I went back to my plate, other members of my family has taken every last one. They’re that good.”
Oswaldo said he adores his mother’s tamales, and through pursed lips, he described having to watch most of them being packed up for sale. It was a funny moment for the family of four, which vacillates most days between anxiety and futility.
Oswaldo Jimenez Hernandez, left, 13, and his father,Buy Photo Oswaldo Jimenez Hernandez, left, 13, and his father, Martin, wait as his mother drops off tamales at Stephens Middle School on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 in Salem, Ore. In just a few weeks’ time, Carmen has made more than 750 tamales, amounting to more than $900 worth.
“It’s a good start,” said Martin Jimenez through Salas. “But in addition to this first trip in December, we’ve been told that when it’s time for the heart transplant itself, we’ll need to be there about three months afterward while Oswaldo recovers. We need to sell more tamales.”
Once the hospital qualifies Oswaldo for the transplant, explained Erin Digitale, pediatrics writer at Stanford’s children’s hospital, he and one family member must usually stay within three to four hours travel time from the hospital while they wait for a donated heart to become available.
In some cases, Digitale said, it is possible for patients who live farther away to make arrangements to travel by air ambulance when a heart becomes available. Waiting times for a donor heart are often in the range of one to two years, Digitale said. It is also not unusual for patients to become sicker while they are waiting, and progress to a level where they require ongoing hospitalization and escalation of care.
If Stanford qualifies Oswaldo, it will pay all of the bills and costs associated with the surgery and his recovery, including accommodation for one companion. It also requires that the patient remain in the area three months after the surgery because that is when the patient is at highest risk of experiencing rejection of the transplanted organ. The family is preparing for the time Oswaldo must be away from Salem, but it’s the expenses for the three-month span that are overwhelming them. They cannot fathom being separated for the surgery and recovery time itself.
Jimenez, an agriculture worker and in the United States legally along with the rest of the family, has gotten some help from his employer, the Chateau Bianca winery in Dallas, Salas said. He said the winery has often accommodated his need to attend to his son’s condition, and has also promised him that his job will be waiting for him when his son is recovered and the family returns home to Salem.
“They have been so kind and helpful to me,” Jimenez said. “It makes me very grateful.”
Salas said Willamette Valley Vineyards, where Carmen worked in the kitchen, has also made a donation to the family, to help with some extraneous costs.
There is much uncertainty ahead for the family. There are expensive prescription drugs Oswaldo must take that have been alternatively approved, denied and then approved again. There is schoolwork the teen has missed because he doesn’t have the strength to get through an entire school day in most weeks. There is rent, and then the cooking and wrapping of tamales. Carmen says through Leticia, with both close to tears, that there is “no remedy for Oswaldo.”
“The transplant will help, but it won’t cure him,” Carmen said. While the family waits, the Adam Stephens community continues to rally to help one of their own, offering emtional support and regular tamale orders. The staff hopes its endorsement of Carmen’s edible excellence will prompt others to buy them, especially since some families include them as part of their Christmas traditions.
“He’s a great kid, really, a nice young man,” said Matt Biondi, principal at Stephens. “We care about him a lot, and the community and staff have come together with the kids to help him out. We don’t want money to be a limiting factor to getting him the health care he needs.”
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