The first question on future expats’ minds is always health care. In order to explain Vivian Pellas hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, it starts with a love story written by Blanco Mareno in 1999. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss health care for expats. Today….the love story.
The life of Vivian Pellas, a survivor of the ill-fated TAN-SAHSA Airlines Flight 414, October 21, 1989 in Las Mesitas, Honduras, is a story of love and solidarity without limits. She is a persevering woman, a humble philanthropist, simple, with a beauty in the soul that is reflected in her saintlike face and a smile that is a balm for the burnt children of Nicaragua, who see in her their guardian angel.
That is the impression I got when I heard her talk with optimism about her great project of a Burn Hospital for Central America in Managua, Nicaragua. Sitting there with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, behind and seemingly protecting her, nobody could say that she had suffered the ordeal of burns and 62 fractures in her face and body.
Vivian and her husband Carlos Pellas are two of just nine survivors of the worst accident in Central American aviation history where 139 people died amid the horror of fire and smoke.
She has wasted no time in searching for explanations or lamenting. She believes that the same light that led her out of that fiery inferno is the same light that leads her on with the Burnt Children’s Association.
Her indefatigable work to repeat her miracle in the little ones that have been burned, seeking help even from her sickbed, and even dancing again for the noble cause, was acknowledged with the “Servitor Pacis” Award from the Sendero de Paz Foundation that is presided by Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Permanent Observation Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Nuncio in New York.
“This prize gives support to the project of turning tears into smiles, which is the Hospital for the Burned in Central America,” she says with joy reflected in her eyes.
Her love knows no boundaries because her life does not either. She was born in Habana, Cuba with the name of Vivian Fernandez Garcia. Her parents were Jose Fernandez de la Torre and Lidia Garcia, both, descendants of Spanish migrants. At seven years of age, Vivian left the country with her parents due to discord with the new communist regime and headed for Nicaragua. In 1976 she married Carlos Pellas Chamorro, with whom she has three children: Carlos Francisco, Vivian Vanessa and Eduardo Francisco. In 1986, like thousands of Nicaraguans, they were forced to leave the country and went to Miami.
In 1991, two years after the accident, she and her husband took from California to Nicaragua a group from Interplast, the largest Plastic Surgeons volunteer organization in the world. They formed the Association for Burnt Children of Nicaragua, rebuilt the Burn Unit of Nicaragua and built the Burn Unit of the Fernando Velez Paiz Hospital in Managua that, together with the “Jornadas Medicas,” have given special service to more than 50,000 children and 8,000 adults.
Dona Vivian, as everybody calls her, runs the National Unity and Plastic Surgery for Burn Victims project and is a member of the organization “Physicians for Peace” and Human Relief Organization of Virginia in the United States. She organized the “Sea Legs” Program that provides prosthetics for amputees.
In 1992, she started to dance in the lyrical genre and promoted a show for national and international artists to collect funds for the association.
Her power to convene is such that in 1998 she organized a 15-hour tele-marathon for the victims of Hurricane Mitch, during which she collected medicine, food and a million dollars that were given to the Red Cross.
What follows is a recent conversation with Vivian Pellas.
HTW: October 21, 1989…
VIVIAN: “Never, never had I thought that I could be burned. I always have liked to help others but I believe that the feeling was dormant because one grows up with many inhibitions and prejudices which stunt personal development. When I had the accident, I found out that there are more important things in life and that inhibitions should just go to hell. We [her husband and her] were going to Miami. Since my mother lives in Tegucigalpa and it was there that we would switch planes, I expected to see her because she said she had some earrings for me as a gift. But I never got there…
In the passenger list, the Pellas were identified as a Spanish couple. Nobody knew it was us but my mother.
What I tell you comes twenty percent from me and eighty percent from my husband. I believe that I died and came back to life…
The plane was flying perfectly. Outside it was cloudy and you couldn’t see anything. We were sitting perfectly calm in the sixth row when suddenly, the plane started to jump monstrously. I remember I closed my eyes and felt: what a sad way to die. When I came to, according to my husband, the plane came to a halt and he saw a hole through which he saw tall grass. Once outside, he remembers me and comes back in to look for me but he couldn’t find me . Suddenly, he recognized me by my blouse under the fuselage, but my face is disfigured, full of cuts. His shirt is on fire and he yells to me, ‘Vivian! Viviannnn!,’ and I listen like if he was far away. But I hear him in my subconscious and it was enough to come back to life.
I tried three times to get up. I feel that on the third time I gave it all of my life, that I pulled on the roots and I felt that life was coming up through me, from my feet up, and when it reached my eyes, I managed to open them and see my husband burning. He says he jumped on me and that I was still strapped in. When he tried to take my seatbelt off, he noticed he was missing two fingers from his hand. He told me: “Jump! At least one of us should get out for our children.” All this was in seconds. He goes out, but I don’t know how I am standing because I see at my feet something like a bright window with light shining up. My eyes closed and I went into something like a dark tunnel and I bounced out of the plane as if I had been pushed. At a moment like that, the mind is going at a million miles.
Then, I came back to and saw my feet again, in shreds, my toenails to the floor, the skin burned. I remembered my children back home and started running through a corn field and it was just in time. At that moment a huge explosion occurred. Even though my husband did not fall, it blew me through the air and I fell, I do not know on what, and I hit hard because when I tried to get up, my clavicle bones had broken through my skin. I looked back and saw some movement in the middle of the fire and smoke and thought it was my husband so I pushed the bone back into my body and returned.
My husband says — I do not remember — that I fell several times and he picked me back up. There on that mountain, [Las Mesitas], there was [on the road very near the crash site], an old beat up truck. My husband saw the two pilots that were there [who survived the crash] and then the owner of the car came and my husband told him to please take us to the hospital. Suddenly I saw how some people came out with rags on their heads and it looked to me like some horror movie. When I sat in the car, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my teeth to one side. My husband looked at me desperately and said that this was for nine months in the hospital, but since I felt that I was going to die, I told him that no, this was just for three hours. I was praying because I knew I was leaving my small children, who were three, seven and nine.
The driver would stop in the street and would ask where the hospital was and when the people saw us, they would stare in horror. When I got out of the car, the doctors also cringed. At the moment I didn’t understand why. Now I know that I was in pieces. My father [who lives in Tegucigalpa] looked for a doctor in El Carmen Hospital and Dr. Cesar Henriquez, a plastic surgeon. Immediately, they closed a wound in my face and treated my husband’s hands. We found out that a stewardess had just died there. The next day we were taken to the United States.”
Reminiscing about the hours before the accident, Vivian tells about the night before, when she danced in a presentation at the Embassy of Spain (in Managua) to collect money for the poor children, but she remembers that she was sad, as if she had not danced at all.
“But I repeated this event in May of 1992 at the Ruben Dario Theater in Managua. Now we have eight shows a year which keep us together. The last show we did was called “Love unites us.” With these performances we show the kids that through dance one can help others. In Nicaragua, 8,000 people are burned (every year) and 70 percent are children. Only a fourth of them are treated in hospitals. The rest are crippled for life and worst of all, they are unable to be a part of society. Part of our job is to integrate this people back into society because, how many of them sit in a corner or inside their house for years because of shame? It is not only of healing the burns but of bringing them back to life.”
HTW: When was the idea of treating the burned conceived?
VIVIAN: “My father says that when I was in the hospital, I was delirious and kept saying ‘I am going to make a burn unit.’ He almost could not understand me because my mouth was deformed.
Why for children? Because the pain I felt, the pain of burns, is terrible. I had to wear a mask for two and a half years. Look, this is me [showing a photograph of her face and head bandaged while her daughter embraces her].
I recovered because I have been in good hands, but not everyone has the same luck. Ever since I was in the U.S., and by remote control, I talked to the people of Interplast. By the end of 1991, I was back in Nicaragua and then I started to do the Asociacion Pro-Quemados’ paperwork. By 1993 it received its legal status and since then, everything has gone smoother and I have received the support from the private sector.
At the hospital where they attended the burned, there really was no burn unit. The rooms where they kept the children had windows to the streets and often, they died by contamination.
Then, we built the burn unit that has operating rooms to attend pediatric reconstructive surgery operations. We also go throughout the country with the national and international medical brigades like Human Relief Organization, Doctors for Peace from Virginia and Interplast from California, and doctors from Switzerland and Italy.
HTW: The Central American Hospital?
VIVIAN: The association has three events a year to collect funds. Now, the dream is to build the hospital for the burned of Central America. It really was conceived years ago as a project of 30 beds and managed the American way. That would be the crown of our efforts, a legacy so the works goes on.
It would be managed by the Association for Burnt Children. They are going to receive bids to get the best option for the highest standards. There can be no errors so the costs do not go up. We understand that the hardest part is maintenance, but we are thinking up a formula to involve the private sector, international organizations and governments.
They have a manzana [0.7 hectare] of land, donated by Carlos Pellas of the Pellas Group, which is a strong supporter like other private enterprises. We are thinking of Central America because we are poor countries and we have the same needs. So, any organization that has the money, the option of making a difference, I invite them to get interested in this project that can be a solution for Central America. We have in our account $250,000 and I would like to tell all well-wishing people that we need help to finish the work. There are some institutions that have the money but they do not want to give because they have doubts that it will be used for the cause. But I guarantee it and tell them to look for us. The guarantee is Vivian Pellas, a woman from a family that has much money but also a great desire to help others and to be an example of recovery, who takes care of the funds as if they were her own children, with an excellent group of people.
Before, it was difficult for people to help. Maybe it was because we had come out of a war, the earthquake and much destruction, but now I see that people help out more and that makes me very happy.
HTW: We saw you in the T.V. show “Sabado Gigante” (which is seen by tens of millions of people in all of the Americas every Saturday), after you received the “Servitor Pacis” Award in New York.
VIVIAN: For me, the Church is wise. This award was given to me at a moment when we were to get involved in this project of about two million dollars and after we have received false promises. I needed moral support and they have given it to me.
There, in New York, the seat of the United Nations as a back drop, on June 17, Vivian Pellas said that she wanted those who have the money and power to know that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from helping others, not from the accumulation of riches and power.
I have much hope in the people of Honduras. My parents, who live in Tegucigalpa, and some friends have told me many things about the first lady, Mary Flakes de Flores, who is a woman that helps the most needy. I would like to contact her so she can give us support in this crusade to tend to the little ones that have been burned from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
Well, from anywhere, because suffering, like solidarity, has no borders.
HTW: There are people that talk about Vivian as St. Vivian.
VIVIAN: I thank them. They talk like that because of the help and as a way of thanking me, but I am a person like anyone else. I just wish we help each other. Like Monsignor Martino said when he gave me the award, “to help the poorest of the poor.” If someone poor is dying, nobody pays attention to them and they feel desolated.
HTW: The meaning to Vivian Pellas … of God
VIVIAN: The center and the end of my life. I once told Him in my prayers: If you ever send me something, do it so I can teach and be of service for everybody else.
HTW: … of Carlos Pellas.
VIVIAN: My husband, a person who has been with me in the hardest times. He is a sensible man, a visionary. He sees in these works not an expenditure but an investment.
HTW: … of Vivian, Carlos and Eduardo.
VIVIAN: My children are my whole life. They have supported me during my recuperation.
HTW: … of Nicaragua.
VIVIAN: I was born in Cuba but this is where I was raised, this is my country.
HTW: … of Honduras.
VIVIAN: That is where my parents are and where I had the accident. It is the birthplace of everything I am doing now. I live with the past. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to help others.
And help others…she does!! Stay tuned for my next post, Health Care for Expats: A Hypochondriac’s Story.