Girl, 3, in 19,000km flight for life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 12:00am

Toddler with rare breathing disorder is stable after surviving 24-hour journey from Ecuador

A toddler with a rare breathing disorder was stable at a hospital in Guangdong last night after a nerve-racking, 19,000km, 24-hour journey from Ecuador to Hong Kong.

But the family's ordeal is far from over. The parents of three-year-old Sophia Lou said yesterday they may have to sell their family home to raise funds to pay for the treatment of their daughter's genetically acquired illness.

Sophia's evacuation involved the Christian Alliance Church, the Ecuadorean Red Cross, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and the Chinese embassy in Quito.

Doctors at the private Guangdong hospital have run a battery of tests, but her father, Lou Juhe, said they had yet to figure out what they could do to help.

'It is really expensive here. We have to pay 280 yuan per day for the room,' he said. 'And we still need to pay back debts to the Quito hospital in the coming five years. It is really a hard time for us.'

Mr Lou said doctors in Quito often needed to call the United States for advice on how to treat his daughter.

Ecuadorean Red Cross doctor Andres Moreno accompanied Sophia and her parents on the journey from Quito to Hong Kong, which began on August 3.

Mr Lou told the Post before leaving Hong Kong on Thursday that Sophia suffered from congenital hypoventilation alveolar syndrome, a birth defect that affects one in 10,000 newborns.

Sufferers of the ailment are unable to breathe unassisted because their diaphragm and lung cells do not fully develop.

Dr Moreno said Sophia had survived two heart attacks and spent a year in the intensive-care unit at the Vozandas Hospital in Quito, a private institution.

The hospital raised US$80,000 to buy a pacemaker for Sophia and waived fees of $1,200 a day for the intensive-care unit, he said.

Sophia also underwent a tracheotomy to allow oxygen to be pumped into her lungs. Quito's altitude of 2,850 metres above sea level made it more difficult for her to breathe.

In addition, Sophia required medical assistance to take in nutrients when the tissue of her oesophagus became scarred after a year of treatment at the Quito hospital, he said.

Dr Moreno said despite Sophia's condition, there was only one critical moment during her flight from Quito to the first stop-over in Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean.

He said the girl's heart raced to 150 beats a minute after she was injected with a sleeping drug.

She stabilised after her oxygen supply was increased and the doctor siphoned off excess mucous.

After a nine-hour journey to Amsterdam, the party boarded an 11-hour flight to Hong Kong.

'It was sad because we had seats which were not in the same row, and people did not want to give up their seats for the family,' Dr Moreno said.

The family then took a train from Hong Kong to Guangdong via Lowu.

Sophia's parents emigrated to Quito in 1998 and stayed with relatives, opening a restaurant soon after their arrival.

Before making the trip home, the couple were forced to sell the business and all their belongings, packing what little else they owned into two suitcases.