ABINGTON >> An oral surgeon’s dedication, an Elkins Park couple’s hospitality and a young woman’s ability to overcome fear led to a heartwarming story that played out over the holidays.
The first time Dr. E. Steven Moriconi went to volunteer at a dental clinic in Haiti came after the 2010 earthquake that severely damaged the island nation. A best friend of 25 years of Haitian origin was “the spark to go there; it prompted me to do something for his country,” the chief of the dental division at Abington Hospital said.
Moriconi and his wife set up a nonprofit, Men Anpil — Creole for many hands — and every year since, he has brought a dental team with him and hundreds of dollars’ worth of supplies to work for a week at the clinic in Haiti, where patients needing oral surgery are “saved up” for us, he said.
Gertha Decimus was one of them.
Two years ago, Gertha went to the clinic with a toothache, and the tooth was extracted, but she was asked to come back to see Moriconi, who found a tumor growing around an impacted tooth in her mouth and did a biopsy, the 29-year-old Haitian woman explained, through interpreter Nativita Merone Jan. 6 at the home of hosts Tom and Betsy Conway.
Another patient had a similar problem, Moriconi said, and he had tried to get that woman to come to the United States for treatment, but was unable to, and the tumor invaded her brain and the woman died in 2015.
“When I saw Gertha, I thought, ‘I can’t let this happen to another person,’” he said.
Gertha, 29, who sells fruits and vegetables at a market with her mother in Haiti, was too afraid to come at first. But when Moriconi returned in 2016 and the tumor had grown, she was told she would die if she didn’t have it removed.
It took a year to get everything in place to bring Gertha here and do the surgery, he said.
After being turned down by other hospitals, Abington Hospital President Meg McGoldrick approved his request for the pro bono procedure “in about 30 minutes — “I can’t thank Abington-Jefferson enough,” said Moriconi, program director for dental residency at Abington since 1987.
“Abington agreed to do it without charge,” he said, noting a lot of scans and blood work were involved and several days of care in the ICU. Likewise, oral surgeons Dr. Andrew Steinkeler and Dr. Mark Kienle “were on board right away” to assist with the surgery, which was “a little beyond my level of expertise and theirs” due to the tumor’s extensiveness, he said.
“The tumor was at the base of her brain” by the time she was operated on Dec. 7, an operation that lasted 11.5 hours, Moriconi said. “No one should die” from such a tumor, he said. But Haiti does not have the surgeons or facilities to do the operation.
The tumor had gone through the jaw bone and into the tissue, and “we wanted to make sure she would be able to speak and function,” he said. The teeth on one side of the lower jaw had to be removed and a titanium prosthesis was used to replace part of the jaw, he said.
“In future years we may be able to put in teeth on the titanium,” Moriconi said. The reconstruction would have to be done here, but he will check on her in April when he returns to the clinic in Haiti, he said.
Gertha was the fourth patient from Haiti he was able to bring to the United States for treatment, he said.
“There are three to four times as many I would want to bring, but we can only do so much,” Moriconi said. “With Gertha, for sure, we saved her life; she has a lot to do going forward with reconstruction.”
The tumor came from an un-erupted wisdom tooth, he said, noting it’s more common in middle aged and older patients.
“That tumor got out of hand,” Moriconi said. In the United States, “it probably would have been picked up when she was 15 or 16 and removed in the office.”
Moriconi praised the Conways, who volunteer with Hosts for Hospitals, which provides free lodging at host homes for out-of-town patients and families of those receiving medical care in Philadelphia area hospitals. His wife also volunteers, driving his visiting patients to appointments and different places.
“This is the third time [the Conways] hosted a patient in their home” for him, Moriconi said. “They’re willing to go to bat.”
Retired Cheltenham School District teachers, the Conways, who both saw Moriconi professionally in the past, have been hosting patients for hospital stays for about 14 years.
“We had the room and heard about the program,” said Tom Conway, who wanted to do something to give back. The third floor is like an apartment, Betsy added.
Gertha came the end of November and was slated to return to Haiti the week of Jan. 9. It was very brave of her to come by herself for the surgery, the Conways said.
Merone, who spent many days with Gertha, said she became an interpreter because of Moriconi. When he first came back from Haiti with a patient, a member of her church who works at Abington Memorial asked if she would serve as a translator, Merone said.
“I became an interpreter as a result of that first case.”
Gertha, who saw snow for the first time Jan. 6, seemed to have mixed emotions about returning.
“I feel better than before,” she said through Merone. “I’m not scared anymore. I thought I would be here longer, but was told I can travel.”
In a message to the surgeons and hospital staff provided through Merone, Gertha said, “I thank you for saving my life! I can’t find a word to describe how grateful I’m to you for the quality of care provided by you all toward me since day one.
“The day I traveled to the U.S. for the surgery is engraved in my memory forever. I was very scared and emotional,” upon hearing the details of the surgery.
Listing numerous others who helped or visited her, she concluded, “I cannot repay any of you but all your rewards will come from God.”