Internet connects U.S., guest families

While many New Orleanians were celebrating Memorial Day over the weekend, one North Shore family was fondly remembering the month it spent with a mother and her little boy from a country halfway around the world.

It has been eight months since Kendra and Kyle France, of Covington, were on hand at Louis Armstrong International Airport to welcome Sunder Erdenekhuyag, who had just finished a 30-hour plane ride from Mongolia.

With tears in her eyes, she handed her 7-month-old son, Ochir, to Kendra France and mustered a “thank you” for these strangers who were set to be her hosts for the next month while the baby received corrective heart surgery.

Via email last week, Erdenekhuyag sent another thank you to the France family and to the many others who helped in her determined, successful effort to have Ochir receive the surgery.

Erdenekhuyag said she was told by a Mongolian cardiologist that her son needed corrective heart surgery before he turned 2.

In the note, she succinctly explained what she went through before help arrived.

“In Mongolia, there is no existence of this kind of surgery up to 3 years of age,” she wrote.

So she started applying to foundations and hospitals in South Korea and the United States via the Internet.

“When I first saw this sentence, ‘One of every 100 children born in the developing world will never see his or her first birthday because of congenital heart disease, according to the International Children’s Heart Foundation,’ from (the) website of HeartGift Foundation, I felt that my whole body was broken into small parts,” she wrote.

Her prayers were answered when the HeartGift Foundation, a nonprofit, charitable group from Texas that provides heart surgeries to those from countries like Mongolia, agreed to help Ochir.

HeartGift set up the surgery at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans and a host family in the Frances.

With the surgery behind him, Ochir now is running and jumping, laughing and playing, eating and sleeping just like any other 15-month-old toddler.

With the help of Facebook, the Frances can watch him grow. Earlier this month, Ochir sent a personalized birthday greeting to Kendra France from Mongolia.

“Happy Birthday to my lovely American Mom,” the poster read. “I love you! From your little man, big hug and kiss.”

That’s also the way the France family feels about Erdenekhuyag and Ochir. What originated as a lifesaving effort turned into so much more, and when it came time for mom and son to head home after the successful surgery, many tears were shed.

“When we see pictures of him, you get a lump in your throat and you miss him like you’d miss your own child, really,” Kyle France said. “To be in the position to affect the life of a young child is the most incredible thing in the world. We weren’t the doctors, and we played a very small part in this whole thing, but he became part of our family.”

Kyle France is pleased to see Ochir’s progress via the Internet.

“I see him on the computer running and jumping, and it’s gratifying and emotional all at the same time,” he added. “While I’m so happy for him, I’d love to pick him up and hug him.”

HeartGift was able to have most of the fees waived. Dr. Joseph Caspi, director of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Children’s Hospital, performed the surgery free of charge.

Erdenekhuyag said that when she and Ochir arrived in New Orleans, he was 7 months old and weighed 14.3 pounds.

“… He was not so active, didn’t eat well. I could recognize he was feeling pain with his heart,” she wrote in the email to the Frances.

But after the Sept. 20 surgery, the boy’s condition improved quickly, his mother said. He began to eat, gained a little more than two pounds in a week and became more active.

And today, she said, Ochir weighs a little more than 26 pounds, “eats very well, talks small words and runs all over the place like a monkey.”

Doctors in Mongolia have said the child is doing well during recent follow-up visits, she said.

“We were so blessed,” Erdenekhuyag said of the experience.

The Frances said they couldn’t be more pleased.

Kyle France, who has dedicated his life to children as president of Kehoe-France schools, said they are trying to set up a return visit to New Orleans for the family in the near future.

“My life revolves around making a difference in kids’ lives, and while this was a difference of health, it’s all relative,” he said. “For Kendra and myself, this is what we live our lives to do now. … It was a very easy thing for us to do. When they called and asked, we didn’t even think twice. And now, they’re a part of our family.”