Kristen Longoria might have been a doctor regardless of her youngest brother’s health problems.
When she was about 1 year old, she rushed through the pews of her church, frantically seeking a Band-Aid for “Jesus’ owies.” As she grew into a young adult with a desire to help children and families, medicine was a natural calling for Longoria.
But the numerous health problems that afflicted her youngest brother, who died two years ago on Jan. 27, gave her a glimpse into the medical field during frequent trips to hospitals with him. And her brother’s untimely passing, following the fifth-year anniversary of his heart transplant, spurred Longoria’s interest to volunteer with the International Children’s Heart Foundation to help other children who suffer from congenital heart defects.
The Edinburg High School alumna, who sold cookies under the table and worked part time to fund the trip to Ecuador with the foundation, said the trip was a tribute to her brother, Jaime Longoria Jr.
“Going into medicine was something I was built to do,” said Longoria, 18, now a freshman at Baylor University studying biochemistry with future plans for medical school. “But if it wasn’t for my brother, I never would have made the trip.”
By then, she was so accustomed to traveling for him.
Longoria and her middle sibling, Joseph, often accompanied their parents as Jaime Longoria Jr. shuffled between specialists and surgeons in Corpus Christi, Omaha or Chicago. Born with two serious heart defects — mitral valve regurgitation and aortic stenosis — Jaimito had five open-heart surgeries, two pacemakers and two artificial heart valves, all before the age of 2.
His heart conditions blocked a healthy blood flow from the atrium to the left ventricle and narrowed the aortic artery into his heart, later resulting in the loss of two-thirds of his small intestine and gallbladder.
When a thoracic surgeon in Omaha removed most of his intestine due to lack of oxygen in 2005, Kristen Longoria made the trip and marveled at his care. Then when the pediatric team at the University of Chicago prepped Jaime Longoria Jr. for the Jan. 26, 2006, heart transplant, Kristen Longoria stayed for weeks at the Ronald McDonald House to be near her brother.
The heart transplant went off without problems, providing new life for the 2-year-old. As he grew up the following five years, Kristen Longoria helped her parents care for the playful youngster who required a feeding tube because of his developmental problems.
Then the day after the five-year anniversary of his heart transplant, Jaime Jr. developed an infection from the central line that pumped nutritional liquids into his body. Twelve hours after his family noticed the fever, he died at the hospital.
Kristen Longoria said the phone call from her parents was the worst news she’ll ever receive. But her father, Jaime Longoria Sr., said it also strengthened Kristen’s resolve to help others like Jaime Jr.
“Certainly, Jaimito had a huge impact on our whole family in various ways,” said Jaime Longoria Sr., an administrator for the county judge’s office. “Kristen wanted to live the life of helping families and kids.
“This is Jaimito’s footprint on our family.”
The Longorias kept in touch with many of the medical staff who cared for Jaime Jr. throughout his life. When Kristen ran across a Facebook post by a nurse practitioner mentioning her trips to the Dominican Republic with the International Children’s Heart Foundation, Kristen emailed her to see what it was about.
Karen Mowinski, a pediatric transplant nurse coordinator with the University of Chicago who previously worked with the Longorias, has made multiple trips to the Dominican Republic and elsewhere with the foundation. A nonprofit founded in 1994 in Memphis by Dr. William Novick, the foundation sends medical teams to developing countries, where they operate on as many children with congenital heart defects as possible.
But Mowinski said the organization’s goal is also to lift barriers to care in those corners of the world by teaching area physicians and nurses the medical procedures so they can be self-sustainable. In many cases, children in those underserved countries are walking around with heart defects that would have been addressed much earlier in the United States.
After Mowinksi replied to Kristen’s inquiry with details about the foundation and its upcoming itinerary, the high school senior approached her dad with a list of the options. Jaime Longoria Sr., thinking little of the question at the time, brushed it off by saying Ecuador was the best option.
When Kristen raised the money for the trip from her high school graduation gifts and her savings, Jaime Longoria had to pull up a map to find out exactly where she would be in Ecuador.
Kristen Longoria spent two weeks during late June and early July in Guayaquil, the largest and most populous city in Ecuador. During that time, the medical staff operated on 14 children with Kristen soaking up information on how to heal children whose hearts barely functioned.
Kristen recalled a 5-year-old with a heart murmur that sounded like a washing machine as the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood mixed.
“She could not learn enough. She wouldn’t stop talking” to the medical staff, said Mowinski, who did not make that trip but knows a cardiologist who did. “If he was doing an echocardiogram, she was looking over his shoulder and asking him, ‘What about this?’ and ‘How is this going to affect the surgery?’”
With a volunteer group largely consisting of medical students, the freshman — easily the youngest along for the trip — found a niche as a translator for the parents and comforting friend to the patients.
To cheer some up, she painted a butterfly on her face. As they waited for their turn in the operating room, she held their hands.
When the doctors lost two patients from complications, Kristen Longoria said, watching their families grieve was a hard reminder of her own family’s loss.
The dedication Kristen Longoria exhibited to the patients and their families was reminiscent of how she cared for her brother, Mowinksi said. Her father said working with sick children is “what she’s being called to do.”
“Jaimito was her best friend,” Jaime Longoria said. “She said this (trip to Ecuador) is something I want to do for him.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4424.