By Jeremy Walsh
At Natives Restaurant in Jackson Heights Friday, pretty girls in matching dresses danced to boisterous Colombian music among patrons eating lunch in the sunlit dining room. The Tupperware containers they passed around came back sprinkled with a few dollars.
Not an auspicious beginning for fund-raising efforts for a year-old Dominican baby whose family must pay a $346,000 medical bill before he can receive the $500,000 liver transplant that will save his life.
Jackson Heights has been the center of both hope and disappointment for the guardians of young Remny Aguasvivas. They claim Dr. Emilio Villegas, who practices in Jackson Heights, promised to pay all medical expenses associated with the surgery, but dropped off the map after the infant's bill began to skyrocket at Mount Sinai Children's Hospital in Manhattan.
“Everything is very painful,” the child's mother, Emny Perez, said through an interpreter. “I cry every night.”
Now the family has filed a federal lawsuit in New Jersey, where Remny's grandmother, Madeline Aquino, lives. They hope to recover enough money to pay the hospital from Villegas.
He declined to comment for this article. His secretary provided the first name and phone number for an attorney, but it led to a fax machine.
Remny's family learned his son was sick at 7 months. In January, when he was 10 months old, Remny became gravely ill, according to court documents. The Juan Luis Guerra Foundation, a nonprofit group, asked the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for a humanitarian visa for Remny to receive surgery, court documents show. The suit allegesVillegas wrote a letter promising to pay for the surgery.
“Since medical visas, notwithstanding their humanitarian value, require the visa recipient to have sufficient funds to pay for its medical treatment, the letter… was a [binding] offer to pay for all costs associated with Remny's medical procedures,” the lawsuit states.
Remny arrived in the United States March 7, his family said. He was taken to Elmhurst Hospital, but soon transferred to Mount Sinai, court documents show. The cost of the child's emergency treatment began to add up, but no payment came from Villegas, the lawsuit alleges.
Remny has been discharged from the hospital and continues to receive subsidized outpatient care from Mount Sinai.
But Kevin Orozovich, a hospital spokesman, said five children are waiting there for liver transplants, which are scarce nationwide, and financial arrangements are crucial.
In addition to the $500,000 transplant cost, medication and other outpatient care averages $6,000 to $10,000 every month for the rest of a patient's life, Orozovich said, noting Remny is not eligible for public assistance.
Perez said she hopes she can donate part of her liver to save her son, but said the hospital will not test her for compatibility until part of the bill is paid.
Enter Rodolfo Rodriguez, an activist in the Latin American community.
Rodriguez, who operates a Connecticut-based organization called Open Hearts Open Doors Inc., learned about Remny's case when he opened the Latino paper El Diario April 3. When he read that the lawsuit had been filed in May, he said he began to worry.
“Everybody is concentrating on the lawsuit,” he said. “I was asking myself, 'What about the child?' “
Rodriguez called in a few favors and set up the fund-raiser at Natives, which culminated in a $40-a-plate dinner. He raised $2,200 with pledges for about $3,000 more.
“It was partly about visibility,” he said. “We made a lot of contacts.”
Now the family is planning their next move. They hope to hold a raffle in New Jersey, but no events had been set by press time Tuesday.
“He's stable, but he urgently needs the transplant,” Perez said.
Those wishing to donate to Remny Aguasvivas' care can deposit money into a Washington Mutual account in his name: No. 4214929189.
Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.