Alexandra Balcazar was about 6 months old when she was abandoned by her mother on the steps of a hospital in Quito, Ecuador. Alex had been born deformed, her jaw fused to her skull and her mouth clamped shut. Given only a minimal chance of survival, Alex was taken to a mountainside orphanage, where Catholic nuns cared for her. Food had to be mashed and forced through gaps formed by missing baby teeth, or through a feeding tube to her stomach. Even so Alex weighed just 28 lbs. by age 4. She made guttural sounds but could not speak.

In 1984 Margarita Perez de Hurtado, then Ecuador's first lady, arranged to fly the fragile child and a nun-chaperone to Guayaquil, where an oral and maxillofacial surgeon from Massachusetts named Martin Dunn was directing a two-week medical mission among Ecuador's poor. Profoundly moved by Alex's plight—"Her jaw was just like a solid piece of marble," he recalls—Dunn knew at once that the little girl required extremely complicated surgery. He arranged to bring Alex to Boston, beginning a train of events that would lead to a denouement he never anticipated.

Marty Dunn, 51, has a thriving practice in oral surgery, an achievement reflected in the spacious colonial-style home in suburban Milton, Mass. that he shares with his wife, Carol, their adopted daughter, Tracy, plus two dogs and three cats. There is a backyard swimming pool and a red barn stabling a horse named Dixie.

His life was not always so comfortable. Dunn's Irish immigrant father worked as a church janitor; his mother died when Marty was 11. His stepmother, however, believed in Marty's potential. Despite the precarious finances of a family with 10 youngsters, she insisted that he attend a private high school associated with Boston College, then go on to BC. "I paid my own tuition," says Dunn, "by driving a mail truck and working as short-order cook and elevator operator." When he married soon after graduation, his 21-year-old bride took jobs as a bank teller and secretary to help put him through four years of Tufts University dental school. "We didn't have much, we worked hard," says Carol. "We figured that's what America is about."

The Dunns first saw another America—Latin America—when Marty, Carol and Tracy vacationed in 1975 in Guatemala. When an earthquake the next year caused thousands of deaths, Marty felt compelled to help, and he enlisted a medical team that spent two weeks teaching Guatemalans emergency procedures and public hygiene.

During his visit to the U.S. in 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke on Boston Common and, in effect, challenged Americans to "come follow me and help others." Again Dunn responded, this time as a founder of Por Cristo—"For Christ"—a voluntary medical mission supported by donations. Since 1980 his group has dispatched 23 teams of doctors, nurses, hygienists and physical therapists (who receive only airfare) for fortnightly stints in Ecuador. Working with local doctors, they have examined 32,000 patients and set up the country's first pediatric and newborn intensive-care units. Also on the teams are building contractors to plan new facilities. From the start Por Cristo has maintained an ecumenical spirit. Often, says Dunn, a team's Catholics are outnumbered by its Baptists. Three Ecuadoran presidents have honored Por Cristo, and last year Dunn received the distinction of being named a Knight of Ecuador. With a current budget of $258,000, Por Cristo is expanding its work this year to Bolivia and Peru.

When Alexandra was first brought to Boston two years ago, Dunn was more than a little worried. "She certainly was one of my most difficult cases," he recalls. "There was a good chance she would die." In a seven-hour operation Dunn unlocked Alex's jaw by drilling a gap in the jawbone on each side of her face. Using two of her ribs and her cartilage, he fashioned jaw hinges. Alex's baby teeth were extracted, but her permanent teeth were saved. Only a day after surgery she was sitting up, smiling broadly and eating ice cream. Four weeks later her doctor escorted Alex home to Ecuador.

Still Dunn worried. He knew Alex would need rigorous therapy three times a day to prevent her jaw from fusing again. Back in Boston he telephoned repeatedly to see how she was doing, only to be told "not well." Alarmed, Dunn sent a Por Cristo representative to bring Alex back to Boston for expert rehabilitation. This time, in June 1984, Alex moved into the Dunn home. It was supposed to be temporary, but with time the bond grew closer and Alex stayed. She is a lively, inquisitive child who, thanks to instruction in English, has become a nonstop talker. She started kindergarten this fall. "Milton," she declares often, "is my favorite place."

Marty and Carol "talked back and forth" about adoption. They worried about being too old. With the publicity surrounding Alex's case, Por Cristo received some 300 inquiries about her, so there were alternatives. Still, Marty reasoned, "we could not dump her with someone else who may not be able to help her with all her medical needs." Besides, the Dunns admit, Alex has become "an indispensable part of the family."

A petition has been filed with Ecuadoran authorities, and a decision is expected soon. Meanwhile all the Dunns have visited Alex's orphanage—Tracy four times, Carol for the first time this year—to deliver donated toys and sports equipment. There, Carol met a 5-year-old child named Maria whose legs are so deformed that she has never walked. Carol is determined to bring her to Boston, under Por Cristo's auspices, for treatment. That could mean another playmate in the Dunn home for Alex, who thinks that's just fine. "Maria," she says unselfishly, "can share my room."

  • Contributors:
  • Giovanna Breu.