by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He was walking through the field to get to his father and suddenly, there it was. A big black snake.

“Were you scared?” the boy is asked. “No,” he says now.

The snake had a yellow belly. It was poisonous. The boy did what he was taught to do in his Guatemalan mountain village: he did not run. He watched the snake, saw it move towards him.

“Then what happened?”

“Bit me,” he says.

The boy began to die. His mother, who had seen the whole thing happen, was crying. She grabbed her poisoned son and rushed to her husband. They left their crops and other kids and went down the mountain to the nearest hospital. The doctors shook their heads: such bites were usually fatal. The parents waited. Days passed. Poor and saddled with responsibilities, they went home. Maybe they prayed. Maybe they wept. But they left their son for dead. This was five years ago.

Margarito Sils is now 11 years old and sitting in front of me, with jet-black hair, olive skin and a smile that comes right out of the cookie jar. How he got from that crop field in Guatemala to an ice rink at Joe Louis Arena is one of those crazy miracle-dusted stories.

The kind we so desperately need to hear. Five little miracles

The first little miracle was Margarito himself. Left alone in that hospital, his body fought the poison. He did not die. The snake bite robbed him of growth between his ankle and foot, and he limped badly, but he lived.

The second little miracle is a group of U.S. surgeons, who came through San Cristobal, Verapaz, in 1989 and noticed this cute kid with a bad limp who seemed to live in the hospital, playing in the halls or throwing a ball outside. His parents, they were told, could not be found. This is Guatemala, remember, not Henry Ford Hospital.

The surgeons fell in love with the kid — he ate with them, played with them — and while they couldn’t take him to America without visas, they got organizations to continue the search for his family. That led to the third little miracle: The parents were found.

“Did you recognize your father after all those years?” Margarito is asked.

“Yes,” he says. “And my mother.”

The fourth little miracle is the humanitarian Michigan outfit called Healing The Children, which brings in kids from Third World countries who need medical help unavailable in their homelands. It was under their wing that Margarito traveled to America last summer and began a treatment for his bum leg that can only be described as unbelievable. It is called Ilizarov. It was invented by a Russian surgeon. It involves pins and wires that are put through the bone, and adjusted with pressure on an outside apparatus. That pressure eventually pulls the bone apart, allowing spontaneous new bone growth to fill the gap.

Make a short leg longer.

Make a dead leg grow.

I guess you’d call that the fifth miracle. There’s something about a child

During his time here, Margarito has been living with a foster family, Doreen and Jon Lawrence of Sterling Heights. He had the same affect on them as he’s had on nearly everyone: He melted them like wax. They held him. Kissed him. Sat with him as he marveled at TV. Once, they found him, sitting inside the car, hypnotized by the dashboard.

During his treatment, the Lawrences took Margarito to a Junior Red Wings game at Joe Louis. He was so excited by the action, he bounced in his seat. They went back. And back again. “When we found out Margarito would be going home soon, we called and asked if he could meet the players,” Doreen says.

Next thing they knew, two of the players were at the house, teaching him how to hold a stick and how to take a slap shot. The following morning, Margarito was at the rink, as a special guest. He sat in at team meetings. He went out when they skated. A Spanish-speaking kid from the hills of Guatemala, sliding around on center ice.

Margarito’s “bad” leg is now two inches longer than his good one. “This way, he’ll grow into his right size,” Doreen says. When I ask how they know what his “right size” is, she says doctors “worked with a Polaroid of Margarito and his father. They estimated his adult height from that.”

A Polaroid?

Margarito travels back to Guatemala on Monday. His parents will be waiting. If all goes well, this kid, left for dead with a snakebite, will jump back onto a life that tried to throw him. All because a handful of people, none of whom made a penny off this, saw the one thing left on this planet that nobody seems to argue over: a child who needs help.

You watch this kid kiss his foster mother. You watch him grab a hockey stick and try to swing it. You think about a village in Guatemala and an ice rink in Detroit. And you realize, if there’s a way to connect those two places, there’s a way to do just about anything.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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