From the Heart
09/18/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
A year and a half ago, Gloria Weichand received a videotape and a packet of medical records from China. She popped the tape into her VCR, and there was 13-year-old Hengye Zhang, sitting with his parents at his kitchen table in Shanghai. Leading the quiet, solitary life common to most children with serious heart disease, Hengye was coloring in a picture book. Then he stood, arms at his side like a soldier, and spoke. "He said he was not afraid of death for himself," recalls Weichand. "He was afraid for his parents, because they had already lost his older brother to the same thing. Then he said, 'My wish is to fly to your side like a little bird.' Now, how do you ignore something like that?"
For Weichand, the answer was simple: You don't. A New Jersey homemaker and mother of three who suffers from migraines so severe she has seldom been able to keep a regular job, Weichand responded to pleas like Hengye's by founding Gloria's Place of Hope, a nonprofit organization and Web site (gloriasplaceofhope.org) devoted to saving Third World children with congenital heart disease. "I've been contacted by over 1,000 kids," says Weichand, 51, known by many in China as the Angel of the Internet, "I have medical reports for 400 waiting to come. Some have been to every major hospital in China. But their problems are so complex, and the technology so far behind ours, that doctors have sent them home to die."
Running her foundation out of her basement in Oak Ridge, N.J., Weichand brings about a half-dozen grievously ill children each month to the U.S.–most from China but some from South America and elsewhere. Weaving a network of deals for the families, she secures free flights, phone time and car service, teams them with translators and finds free or reduced-rate housing in hotels and community centers. Finally, through an arrangement with the New York University Medical Center, where the hospital charges a maximum of $32,000 per child, she provides the kids with lifesaving surgery. What's more, she goes into the OR with virtually every one of them. "I need to go in with them," she says. "You have to understand, these people put their trust in me."
They do indeed, as their letters to Weichand movingly testify. Congenital heart disease can lead to a slow and painful death, so it is no wonder that when the despairing parents of one 2-year-old boy discovered Gloria, they were inspired to write, "We feel the beam of sunlight that again breaks the cloud and brightens Zhuang Zhuang's future." Or that Hengye's grateful parents sent a note to Gloria after his surgery to tell her that the boy's school in China had thrown him a welcome-home party and that Hengye had given a speech: "He said, 'I love America, because there is a mother who loves me there.' All his schoolmates were so moved with tear after hearing it. They understood that the American gave the second life to Hengye."
If Weichand's generosity seems extraordinary, it is. But then she knows what the kids and their parents are going through. Her son Billy, now 23, was born with a life-threatening abnormality in which the major arteries of his heart were wrongly positioned. He had an operation the day he was born and had open-heart surgery 11 months later. "Every day he's with us is a gift," Weichand says of the second of her three sons, who works with her at Gloria's Place. "It took years before I could stop stealing into his room to see if he was still breathing."
In fact, it was in June 1997, while looking for someone for her somewhat sheltered son to exchange e-mails with, that Weichand went on the Internet, clicked onto a site for adults with heart disease and opened the door onto what would become her life's work. "I saw a plea from a man in China that said, 'Please save my son,' " she says. The man, Haikou Wang, was a professor of entomology in Nanjing. He had taken his 9-month-old boy Yineng to several Chinese hospitals but was told there was no hope. The baby's defect, Gloria realized, was the same as Billy's. Plus, she saw, the father had initially posted his plea on March 31–her birthday.
A great believer in signs, Weichand poured herself into Yineng's cause. She got the baby's medical reports and started calling U.S. hospitals–to no avail. "They all rejected me because I had no money," she says. In August of that year she caught the interest of a local TV station, which ran a story that prompted the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, N.J., to offer to do the surgery free of charge. Three weeks later Haikou Wang, his wife, Min Li, and Yineng arrived. They stayed with Gloria for nearly a year while Yineng had two successful operations. "When they returned to China, the family contacted the newspapers," says Weichand. "And the Chinese people started reading about me. Within two weeks I got 200 e-mails. That was the beginning."
Raised in West Paterson, N.J., by her parents, Bill, a railroad engineer, and Madeline Greischel, both now 77, Gloria had always shown a concern for others. Madeline tells how Gloria once gave her entire Easter outfit to a girl from school. "The girl's father had died, and she felt sorry for her," says Madeline. "They went into her bedroom, and when they came out, the girl had on Gloria's new coat, new dress and Mary Jane shoes, even her new underwear. I'd made the dress myself."
When Gloria was 13, the family moved to Jefferson Township, a nearby resort community where the summer people would sometimes leave pets behind when they returned to the city. Gloria would find these pathetic creatures shivering beside the highway. "I can't count how many dogs and cats we took in," says Madeline. "My daughter always had a big heart."
And a mind of her own. Ask her husband. By the time Ralph Weichand met her in 1973, Gloria had already been married and divorced and brought a son, Richard, now 32, into the world. One day Gloria, who had been sizing up Ralph while dating one of his friends, asked him out. "She made her mind up about us long before I did," says Ralph, 53, a phys-ed teacher. "In fact, she made my mind up for me before I knew what I wanted."
The two married in 1974, and Billy was born three years later (followed in 1980 by another son, also called Richard, now 18). Billy's first year was a greater challenge than Gloria had ever known. The day he was born the doctors had to open a hole in his heart to aid his circulation. "He still wasn't getting enough oxygen," says Weichand. "He had 75 to 100 seizures a day. He couldn't suck a bottle. He was not allowed to cry, so he slept on my chest. Every second of that first year he had to be in somebody's arms. It was a very difficult year, and I will never forget it. It's why I'm so driven."
At 11 months, when his heart was big enough, Billy underwent 9½ hours of surgery at Columbia Presbyterian hospital, where the doctors cut his heart in half and inserted a baffle to reroute oxygenated blood to the right parts of his body. He had a scary bout with arrhythmia at age 15, but he has been mostly fine ever since. "Billy has never been on medication," says Weichand. "He's still watched very closely." Especially by Gloria, which, Billy confides, can be a pain. "My mom is overprotective," he says. "She's always asking me how I feel. Sometimes I have to tell her, 'Mom, I'm all right. Get a grip.'"
Initially, Weichand thought of Billy's defect as a death sentence. But when Billy was 3 months old, she got a call from a woman whose son, just the year before, had had the same surgery he was facing. Says Gloria: "She called to tell me, 'There is hope. We'd like to bring our baby to show you.' They sat with me through the surgery. What she did for me, I wanted to do for others."
Over the years, Weichand would contact and volunteer to sit with hundreds of terrified parents whose children were being operated on. But when she answered Haikou Wang's Internet plea, the tidal gates truly opened. Profoundly touched by the parents' appeals, this unworldly woman began making cold calls to airlines, hotels, hospitals and religious organizations, learning to dangle the promise of publicity and to tug at heartstrings whenever she could.
In April 1998 she formed her nonprofit group, and last June she got a major break when she contacted Charles Wang, the billionaire founder of Computer Associates on New York's Long Island. "Gloria sent me a letter asking for help with just one child," says Wang, who has since become her principal benefactor. "I tell Gloria, 'Whatever you need, just go ahead.'" Aside from funding, the key element was finding a hospital willing to do the work for a reduced fee. That came in late 1998, when NYU hospital accepted her first group of kids for surgery.
One of those children was a little girl named Mao Mao, whom Weichand calls "my miracle baby." "We were desperate," says Mao Mao's father, Zhenping Yu, 36, a mechanical engineer from Harbin. When the 3-year-old arrived in the U.S. in April 1999, she remained in a coma for 17 days. Doctors say her heart stopped beating and recovered six times; she also developed malignant hypothermia, a condition that destroys muscles and forced doctors to remove much of the muscle from her legs. NYU critical-care doctor Marcelo Auslender slept by Mao Mao's bed at night, holding her foot–knowing that as long as he could feel a pulse, they would not have to amputate. "Marcelo got so attached to the child," says Dennis Schwesinger, an NYU hospital administrator, "that he wept when she left."
Now recovered, though wearing leg braces, Mao Mao lives with her parents in New York City and is going into second grade. "Here was a 5-year-old girl," says Ralph Weichand, "who wanted to be a dancer, and she nearly had her legs amputated. Last summer we visited her. She turned on the radio and just started dancing for us. I can't tell you how we felt."
Fortunately, Gloria's Place has lost just five children so far to the ravages of their disease. Indeed, the great majority of Weichand's kids enjoy happy endings–even 2-year-old Chauner Ye, who came to the U.S. this past January. On a recent afternoon around 50 people–doctors, nurses and technicians–crowded a recovery room at NYU hospital, hovering near his bed. Still under anesthesia, he appeared dead to the world but was very much alive, thanks to three hours of surgery.
Medically, the child's case was extraordinary. He had been born with an ectopic heart, which had formed partly outside his body. Visible through a diaphanous membrane, it actually leaped up off his chest with each frantic beat. Aware of the complexity of the surgery, which corrected the heart defect and repositioned the organ inside the boy's chest, his father, Chi Zhong Ye, stood over his son, marveling at what had transpired and fingering a tiny pair of socks decorated with planets.
"I love all the parents. I truly do," said Weichand, watching Chi Zhong Ye. "I cry when they leave. I know I may never see them again. It's very emotional–and it consumes me. I try to draw that line, but I can't."
That said, she was drawn across the room to the little boy's bedside, where the father saw her approach and patted his heart. Gloria put her arm around him and smiled down at the little boy. Her job here was just about done. The next day she would be at the airport, greeting another child in need of her help.