COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - While her spoken English is spotty at best, 8-year-old Lourdes "Lila" Iputi’s rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” is about as perfect as perfect gets.
The American Samoa girl played with her new Barbie dolls as her host and guardian in the U.S. for the past several weeks recounted a series of miracles.
"I volunteered,” said Eva Mulitauaopele, or “Pele” as she's known. “I felt the Lord was saying, ‘You take her.’ Nobody else could. I was willing to help this child."
The first miracle: Pele and her husband, who is from American Samoa, do medical mission work on the island. They travel with a group that provides free clinics, eyeglasses, and dental care. They draw crowds of up to 500 people a day.
Pele said Lila’s mother brought her to the clinic. Dr. Stuart Hamilton, a retired local physician, assessed Lila’s needs. He quickly discovered she had bilateral cataracts and was almost blind. They knew they had to get her to the states quickly before she lost her vision completely. That’s where her surgeon in America took over.
"She came here and she could only see a hand waving in front of her eyes,” Dr. Alexander Pogrebniak said. “Her cataracts were completely white, so when we looked at her pupil, her pupil was filled with white. And I could see calcium in the cataract so I knew it was going to be a bit of a difficult surgery."
Dr. Pogrebniak is a pediatric ophthalmologist at Palmetto Health Richland. He has traveled to Grenada three times to perform surgery for children with vision problems. He said when he got the email asking if he’d be willing to do Lila’s surgery, it wasn’t even a question.
"The vision connection from the eye to the brain develops up until about age 10,” Dr. Pogrebniak said. "And those cells in the lateral geniculate actually gradually die out if they're not used. So, it was important to get her here while she was young. Not only for the quality of her life -- because once she sees her learning is going to improve, her understanding of the world will improve.”
The second miracle: The Spring Valley Rotary Club’s Gift of Life program sponsored the procedure, while numerous area churches pitched in to help clothe Lila and sponsor her stay with the Pele family.
Pele said she traveled with the 8-year-old on four flights and over 8,000 miles to get her to the United States. But, two eye surgeries later, the result is better than anyone could’ve expected. She said this third miracle is the most exciting: Lila sees 20/40 from one eye and 20/60 out of the other.
"It's not just about me, it's not even about Lila,” Pele said. “It's about what God can do when a community comes together. A community in American Samoa and a community here in South Carolina joining hands to help this beautiful child to see! Isn't that amazing?"
And if you ask Lila how she feels now that she can see, she’ll tell you this.
“I feel beautiful. And nice. Jesus opened my eyes," she said.
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