She was the little girl in the white dress and orange arm sling who President Reagan didn't pick up and kiss at last month's fund-raising dinner for Nicaraguan refugees. But, unlike the other little girl who did get the president's attention that night, 11-year-old Maritza Herrera was a real refugee, as real as the bullet wound she had received in her war-torn mountain village just two months before.
In Washington, where she arrived with four other Nicaraguan refugees on April 11, Maritza had a dizzying round of appearances.
There was a news conference on the 12th, at which the five told of atrocities suffered at the hands of leftist Sandinista government troops and asked for aid to displaced Nicaraguans. There were briefings with supporters on Capitol Hill and in the Latin American community. There was the fund-raising dinner on the 15th, where Reagan denounced the Sandinistas and urged congressional approval of $14 million to aid the rebel contras fighting them.
It wasn't until April 16, the day after the dinner and five days after her U.S. arrival, that Maritza's sponsors took her to the emergency room at Children's Hospital, where doctors took one look at her severely infected left arm and immediately hospitalized her.
"I asked her a couple of times that week if she was in pain, and she said no," Alvaro Rizo Castellon, executive vice president of the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund, said yesterday.
Gustavo Ortiz, an International Monetary Fund economist whose family kept Maritza at night that first week of her Washington stay, said he told dinner organizers her second day here that the arm looked seriously infected. But the schedule, he said, didn't seem to allow for a visit to a doctor.
Rizo said the Nicaraguan Refugee Fund, which arranged for Maritza and the others to be brought to Washington for the dinner, had always planned to seek medical treatment for her arm. But dinner organizers were waiting to take her to Miami, where they knew doctors who would treat her at little cost.
Because of Maritza's refugee status, he said, Children's Hospital required substantial payment in advance of her treatment. She was admitted to the hospital after an anonymous donor at the dinner wrote a check to the hospital for $10,000.
Maritza had been living in a refugee camp in Honduras, where she and her mother fled after what they say was a Feb. 7 attack by Sandinista troops on a prayer meeting in their Jinotega Province village. Her brother, 8, was killed, and her arm fractured by a bullet. The wound had been partially treated in Honduras. Rizo said it wasn't until the night of the dinner that she expressed any discomfort.
Caught in the middle of a civil war at home and political struggles abroad, Maritza was nearly forgotten in the crusade to raise money for other refugees. But whatever the reason for a delay in seeking medical help -- and hospital doctors say it made no difference in their treatment of the wound or its severity -- she is getting plenty of attention now.
The dark-eyed wisp of a child, who has a woman's interest in nail polish and makeup, has settled into a brightly colored room at Children's Hospital with a view of the Washington Monument. She is receiving the best medical care, more toys than she knows what to do with, and loving and lavish praise from those she clearly has charmed.
"God loves this child," said Dr. Laura Tosi, the surgeon who operated on Maritza's arm. "From the amount of bone lost, this kid's arm must have been just blasted, yet all the major nerves still work."
Tosi, noting the wound was never life-threatening, says it is quite possible the arm's appearance and condition worsened between the time relief workers saw Maritza in Honduras and the time dinner sponsors here saw her. Bullet entry and exit holes sealed over the wound several times after the shooting, she said, and may have looked healed.
She said the bone was infected at the fracture and the arm was in a sling so long -- held protectively against her body to prevent painful movement -- that her left hand had begun to atrophy from disuse.
Her upper arm is immobilized at the site of the fracture and is healing, and Tosi says occupational therapy is improving Maritza's ability to move her hand. She continues to receive antibiotics for infection.
Psychological wounds of the war heal more slowly. With her mother in Honduras and other brothers still in Nicaragua, Maritza is lonely for her family. And, in the midst of plenty after having so little, there is some guilt about her good fortune, however temporary.
Everything she gets, according to her hospital psychiatrist, who speaks Spanish, is a reminder to her of those back in the refugee camps who don't have anything.
"She never had crayons before, and now she has seven boxes," said the psychiatrist, who asked not to be named. "It's not that she's getting everything she wanted -- she's getting things she never expected she'd get or never knew existed."
Despite the trauma, hospital personnel and Rizo's wife, Catalina, who is a constant visitor, say Maritza is just like any other 11-year-old.
Maritza never attended school in Nicaragua and cannot read or write. But she says she wants to go to school when she returns to Honduras, though the nearest one is 30 miles from the refugee camp.
During her month stay in the United States, Maritza has learned 10 English words -- "fried chicken" and "hey, man" are special favorites -- and developed a fondness for "The Jeffersons" on television. She turns down ice water, loves coffee and may be the only patient at Children's 260-bed facility to reject a Barbie doll.
"They're so skinny," she told the hospital staff.
"We've all become very attached to her," said Tosi.
Catalina Rizo said that were Maritza an orphan, she would join the long list of others who would love to adopt her. But Maritza has a mother, and siblings in both Honduras and Nicaragua, and it is unlikely that anyone would bring the whole family to the United States.
Maritza talks often of rejoining her mother in Honduras but says she never wants to go back to Nicaragua, where all she has ever known is hard work and fear.
Hospital costs at Children's, including weekly phone calls to her mother at the refugee camp, have used up the $10,000 deposit. The Nicaraguan Refugee Fund has started a separate fund-raising effort to pay costs for the rest of her stay.
"But eventually," said Catalina Rizo, "the question comes up of what to do on a permanent basis for these children."
Her husband, a career diplomat who served in the Somoza government until it was overthrown by the Saninistas, has just returned from visits to the refugee camps. He says he delivered $100,000 to relief groups in Costa Rica, much of it raised at the Washington dinner, and would like to raise 10 times that for his people.
"They are living in just tents and sheds, with zero sanitary conditions," said Rizo, who reports that clothing, food and medicine are the chief necessities at the camps.
Rizo said he tries keep the focus on the humanitarian goals of his fund-raising group but admits this is difficult, given the current political controversy.
Reagan's appearance at the NRF dinner, for example, was seen as the kickoff in his thus far unsuccessful campaign to win $14 million in contra aid. And the little girl who was introduced at the dinner as a Nicaraguan refugee turned out to have lived in the United States all her life, much to the glee of Sandinista supporters.
"It's a real propaganda battle in a real polarized environment," said Joe Eldridge, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, who complains that people on both sides of the issue are being caught in the middle.
He said he does not doubt that Sandinista troops have killed and wounded innocent civilians, but said rebel contras have done their share of killing, too.
"It's a war going on, for heaven's sake," he said. "If anything, this should point out why the fighting should be prevented."
Eldridge accused the State Department of using and supporting people who reinforce its policy decisions, and he questioned whether a refugee child wounded by the contras would be allowed to come to the United States for medical treatment.
Rizo said the five people he brought to Washington were given provisional travel documents by the Honduran government and were allowed into the country because they had return tickets. He said he hopes to bring others here for surgery, and would gladly arrange for help, no matter which side in the war had caused the injury.
"We ask aid for all," said Rizo. "And if the liberals or even the communists want to help us, we welcome the money."
Tosi said she isn't concerned about where the money for Maritza's treatment comes from or why she wasn't brought to the hospital right away.
"I'm just tickled they got her here," she said. "As a physician, my attitude is that she is very lucky. Think of all the other kids with disabling wounds who got left behind."