John Kelly's Washington

D.C. hospital helps 'fragile' child during family's crisis

Jonathon Gutierrez, 13, with parents Ofelia and Tony, received critical surgery at Children's Hospital when when his parents had no health insurance.
Jonathon Gutierrez, 13, with parents Ofelia and Tony, received critical surgery at Children's Hospital when when his parents had no health insurance. "We came to Children's, and I experienced something that I haven't experienced before," Tony said. "It was not about, 'Do you have money to pay?' It was to take care of Jonathon." (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Monday, December 14, 2009

Tony Gutierrez met Ofelia Amante when he went to pick up his tuxedo from the dry cleaners. A tux is Tony's uniform. He wears it to work at catering events all over the Washington area and on this particular morning in 1992, he was standing outside a locked dry cleaners on G Street SW.

Ofelia was standing outside, too. She was the owner.

She cleaned his tux plenty of times after that.

The two started dating. They discovered that they went to the same church. They got married, and on Jan. 17, 1996, their son, Jonathon, was born.

The doctors said they had two things to tell Tony. "First of all they told me, 'I have very good news for you: You have a very special kid.' Then they told me the bad news. They told me that Jonathon is very fragile. They told me that maybe for the rest of my life, Jonathon's going to depend on us. . . . He will need lots of care and lots of love."

The love would be easy to give, for what parent doesn't love his child? The care was what worried Tony.

There are many people we encounter at the periphery of our lives -- people who cater our meals, who clean our tuxes, who clean our homes or offices -- who work hard for not a lot of money. Many of them don't have health insurance. Tony and Ofelia didn't. A restaurant they ran together had failed. Tony had fallen behind on his mortgage. Starting the Nissan they had bought from a junkyard for $300 required pushing it down the street.

And now they had a child with Down syndrome and a host of other health issues including malformed joints and a heart ailment called patent ductus arteriosus.

How could they ever afford to help their son?

"We came to Children's, and I experienced something that I haven't experienced before," Tony said. "It was not about, 'Do you have money to pay?' It was to take care of Jonathon. For me, I was questioning: How can I take care of this? I don't have money. And they told me: Don't worry. There is help. Let us worry about that. You just be strong for your son."

The hospital dipped into its uncompensated care fund, the money set aside to help families such as Jonathon's.

At eight months, Jonathon went to Children's for an operation to close the holes in his heart. Every day of Jonathon's babyhood and toddlerhood, Tony massaged his son's legs, stretched them, bent them.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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