Pediatric heart surgeon Gerardo Davalos has treated scores of young heart patients, but one made a particular impression on him.
The day before 11-year-old Josue Ochoa died in 2013, Dr. Davalos, a member of the Rotary Club of Quito, Ecuador, walked into the boy's hospital room to say goodbye. The atmosphere in the room, where family members were gathered, was somber. But one person was smiling and comforting everyone else. It was Josue.
Says Davalos: "I'll never forget how strong Josue was in that moment. He wasn't concerned about himself. He was more worried about his mom and dad. He kept telling them that everything was going to be OK and that he'd lived a great life. He was an amazing child."
And Josue also shared his gratitude with Davalos. "He told me, 'Thank you for giving me a chance to dance at school'", the surgeon recalls.
Five years earlier, funded by a Rotary Foundation grant that paid for corrective heart surgeries for underprivileged children at Quito's Hospital Metropolitano, Davalos had performed a complicated operation that saved Josue's life.
The ensuing recovery period had been extremely hard for the youngster, who'd had to remain in the hospital for two months after the surgery. But "Josue never complained once; he always had a smile on his face," says Davalos. "He couldn't wait to get out of the hospital and dance."
Over the years, though, Josue's heart problems became irreversible, says Davalos. "But Rotary helped extend his life, and gave him a chance to enjoy things that normal children his age do."
Josue is one of more than 120 children on whom Davalos has performed free corrective heart surgeries since his club, along with the Rotary Club of Wheeling, Illinois, USA, initiated the grant project in 2002.
Connecting with Rotary
After spending five years in Spain for his medical residency, Davalos returned home in 1995 eager to make a difference in the lives of Ecuador's underprivileged children, and looking to use his surgical skills outside his regular duties as a hospital doctor.
"I was a young surgeon with a skill I wanted to share," he recalls. "There are so many needs in Ecuador -- the government can't afford to pay for heart surgeries for poor children. There are very few options out there for them. I wanted to find a way to provide free surgeries to those in need."
A friend of Davalos' who was a member of the Quito club thought Rotary could be the answer. After attending a few meetings, Davalos joined the club in 1998.
"I was very impressed with the variety of professional skills the Rotarians had. I didn't know how to start a project or find connections that I needed to reach these desperate children. Rotarians do," says Davalos, who is director of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Hospital Metropolitano, Quito's leading hospital. "The club gave me options and the support I needed. Their enthusiasm to help those less fortunate was as strong as mine."
Rallying behind Davalos' vision, a number of clubs worked together to obtain grant money, which funded more than 60 surgeries.
"Life can be kind to some people and unkind to others. Those of us who are lucky to be in the position to give back must try to do so," he says. "I'm lucky to have found Rotary, lucky to have found friends so willing to help change lives."
Davalos, who also implants cardiac pacemakers free of charge through the Pacemaker Bank Foundation, adds: "I'm grateful that I can share my gift and make a difference. But those children are more of a gift to me than I can ever be to them."
None more so than Josue.