Under the glare of television camera lights, 8-year-old Maria de los Angeles Suarez fidgeted in a large examining chair, waiting to find out if her eye surgery would help her see again.
Bethesda ophthalmologist J. Alberto Martinez, who has developed a strong bond with his young Colombian patient since taking her into his care four months ago, was just as concerned about the outcome.
Martinez, who also is from Colombia, donated his services in performing a complex stem cell transplant on Maria's left eye in which he took healthy cells from her mother in hopes of reversing a rare immune disease that left Maria nearly blind.
On Friday, 10 days after the surgery, Martinez removed the stitches, hoping to see healthy, growing cells that would give her the promise of sight.
"All I want to know is what happened to those cells," Martinez said. "Everything else is a distraction."
The distractions proved to be formidable as Martinez shared the room with cameras from three television news stations, including one from Colombia, and supporters from the local Colombian community. The groups have raised thousands of dollars for Maria's eye treatments. In addition, Shady Grove Hospital donated the operating room and staff for the long stem cell transplant and other procedures.
"Everything depends on today," Maria's mother, Liliana Quintana, said in Spanish as she hugged and thanked friends.
At age 5, after contracting Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, Maria survived numerous operations and trauma. The disease, caused by a severe allergic reaction to a drug or virus, strikes fewer than two of every 1 million people. Quintana, who left three sons and her husband, a fruit seller, in Colombia, is not expected to return with Maria for at least another month.
After speaking with reporters at Martinez's office, Quintana squeezed under television cables to get to her daughter's side in the crowded room -- a fitting symbol of her efforts to publicize her daughter's disease. Quintana's persistence with editors at a Colombian television station pushed them to feature her daughter's medical struggles almost a year ago -- a story that was picked up in other countries and seen by one of Martinez's staff members.
"I've never had a famous patient before," Martinez said as Maria giggled and smiled. "Are you ready?"
Maria bravely sat still despite the pain. Her mother held one of her hands to her chest. A supporter stood in the doorway, crossing her fingers.
"No matter what, it's going to be okay," Martinez said, reassuring Maria, who was taking short, deep breaths. "I know you've been through so much,'' he said. "Estas muy valiente. You are very brave."
Finally, the stitches were out. The room was hot and still.
"Open your eyes," Martinez said calmly. "What do you see?"
"You," she said, breaking the tension. Martinez laughed. He held up a small card with black and white numbers on it. He asked her to read the two largest numbers.
"Nine, five," Maria said.
"Wow," Martinez said. "And in English."
Maria blushed and smiled.
He asked her to read the smaller numbers, in Spanish, if she wanted. She tried, but struggled. After a few moments, she spun around to her mother, burying her head in her lap.
Martinez asked everyone to take a break, saying Maria needed a rest.
"I'm happy that the cells took," Martinez said. "My fear was that they had disappeared. So far, they're healthy. But I'm not ecstatic."
Martinez said Maria may need a cornea transplant. She now will go back to the Boston Foundation for Sight to continue treatment.
"I'm happy," Quintana said. "I was very worried, but I had a lot of faith that this would be a significant day for Maria, for Dr. Martinez, for all the people who have helped us."
Maria ran to sit on the knees of Carlos Hernan Mesa, a pastor with Comunidad Cristiana Camino de Vida, a Gaithersburg congregation affiliated with the United Methodist Church where Maria and her mother have found spiritual sanctuary. Mesa told her softly that she would always see a lot spiritually -- that vision would never disappear.
Then she skipped off, holding the hand of her best friend, Amalia Oven, 9. They were going to a diner to get chocolate milkshakes, one of Maria's favorite treats.