A Mother's Journey

America wasn't just a land of opportunity for Elvira Penaloza — it was the only chance for her son to survive. She arrived in St. Petersburg with Mael six years ago, hoping for a miracle. Now the U.S. government wants her out.

click to enlarge Elvira Penaloza in a bedroom at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
Elvira Penaloza in a bedroom at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg.

Christmas Day 1999

Shortly after they boarded the plane in La Paz — the plane that was supposed to take her son to safety — Elvi took off her black and white cardigan and laid it gently over Mael's pock-scarred arms. "Todo va a estar bien," she whispered. It's all going to be okay.

Elvira Penaloza had one change of clothes for herself, and one for her 7-year-old son, Hector Mael Ojeda, when she boarded that American Airlines flight. She had $20, a letter in English for the cab driver who would take them from Tampa International Airport to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, and a makeshift blood transfusion kit.

She held her son as his nose bled on the way to Miami. Though American Airlines had donated the tickets, the airline had made sure to explain that it was not liable for anything that happened to Mael in the air. So Elvi had stashed a syringe and IV bag in the overhead compartment. She had never given a transfusion before, but if her son needed one — a kick-start that would pump his veins full of the platelets they were missing and stop the trickle from his nose — she was ready. Elvi would stick the syringe into her own arm, draw out her own blood, then inject it into the IV bag and into her son.

But Mael made it through, the syringe stayed empty. For a moment, the bleeding stopped.

In Miami on a layover, Elvi spent almost half of her $20 on pizza for herself and her son. When they landed in Tampa, she pulled out the letter. She didn't know what a cab was, didn't know a word of English. So she walked around the airport, showing the piece of paper to whoever would stop to read it. Finally, a woman understood, and brought mother and son outside to the curb, into America.

A nurse was waiting for Mael at All Children's at 8 p.m. on Christmas Day. She stuck a needle into an unblemished spot among the scars and bruises the boy had gotten from transfusions in Bolivia, sending clean blood, full of platelets, into his veins. Mael fell asleep when it was through, his mother's sweater covering him, an uneaten dinner next to his bed.

Elvi was starving, but she wouldn't touch her son's meal — that would get you kicked out of a Bolivian hospital. So she pulled out two bags of peanuts she'd kept from the flight, chewing them slowly as she looked at her son in his American hospital bed. Fourteen weeks before, she had rushed him from their mountain city in Bolivia, driven through the night to La Paz as he bled in the back of the family's red jeep. "Finally, my son is going to get better," she thought as she fell asleep in her bedside chair.

Elvi woke up every half hour that night. She had to check on her son and make sure that their Christmas miracle hadn't been a dream.

Today, as she awaits a judge's decision on her own fate, Elvi is hoping for another miracle.

October 10, 1999

Until the night Mael's nose started to bleed, there'd been no sign that he was sick.

The life of Felipe Ojeda and his wife Elvi had been on an upswing. Their house in Oruro, a city in the Bolivian highlands, was small — Mael and his brother Nestor slept in the same bed, their parents and little sister Susana on a mattress next to them, four other families in adjoining rooms. But the empanada business Elvi had started was taking off, and the family had recently been able to buy a jeep and a phone line. With four adults working 16-hour days, and the children selling the meat pies at schools and open-air markets, they were making almost $20 a day.

But on Oct. 10, Elvi couldn't stop Mael's nosebleed. It flowed until that afternoon, when she took him to a doctor in Oruro, who instantly told them to go to the hospital in La Paz. They took out the backseat of the jeep, slid a mattress onto the floor, then laid Mael and his IV on top. Felipe drove slowly over the mountain roads, the 150-mile trip took almost 11 hours. They had 500 pesos ($60).

Two days later, when the doctors diagnosed Mael with aplastic anemia, the money was already gone.

The disease is a failure of the bone marrow, which produces red and white blood cells that carry oxygen and fight infection, and platelets, which cause blood to clot near a wound. Short of a bone marrow transplant, which the doctors didn't know they should perform, all Elvi and Felipe could do was find new blood to pump through their child and try to get his cell counts up.

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