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.
"I refuse to let him think that he's going to be in a wheelchair," Tony said.
Jonathon is 13. When I met him not long ago he showed me the Special Olympics medal he won in the high jump and photographs of himself with his sister Jasmine, now 12. In every picture, her arms are wrapped around her big brother's neck.
"She's always squeezing you," I said.
"No," Jonathon corrected me, "hugging."
The Fort Washington family has health insurance now. It's not the greatest, but Tony and Ofelia work out payment plans with their doctors and dentists and pay in small installments.
The Gutierrezes are grateful to the staff at Children's Hospital, of course, but Tony's eyes well with gratitude at the thought of people he's never met who were just as important.
"If it wasn't for those people who have contributed," he said, "this would not be possible."
Jonathon put his medal and his photos back into his backpack. Tony said: "For me, if one day I get the lottery, I'll call you and I'll say, 'This money goes back to Children's Hospital.' This is how grateful I am."Your help needed
If you have donated to our annual Children's Hospital campaign, you have helped Jonathon. You have helped a thousand Jonathons: children whose parents sometimes have to decide between paying the rent and paying the doctor, between buying food and buying medicine.
I'll be honest: These are not the best of times, and our campaign this year is evidence of that. We stand at $71,365.78, well short of where we need to be if we hope to reach our $500,000 goal by Jan. 8. But if every person reading this column was to give just a little bit -- $50, $20, $5 -- I think we could make it. Ofelia said Tony doesn't even play the lottery, so it's doubtful he'll be able to bail us out this year.
To donate, send a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.
To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital. To give by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100.