Seattle spine surgery gave child his boyhood back

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — Clutching his zamponia, a traditional Bolivian flute, Alfonso Figueroa stepped in front of his classmates and their parents during a recent Mother's Day celebration at his school. For about three minutes he played a lively song called "Celia." Then he grinned, bowed and leaned against the back wall, exhausted.

That he had enough breath at all is a big step for Alfonso.

"I didn't think I could finish," he said. "But I just kept going and going and trying."

Last year, thanks to the support of benefactors in the Seattle area and under the watch of schoolchildren and the media, the 12-year-old boy lived in Issaquah for nine months while doctors fixed his severely bent spine.

Before, his body was twisted by tuberculosis and his insides were so compressed that doctors feared he had lost 30 percent of his lung capacity. He couldn't eat much without throwing up. He was in frequent pain and in danger of dying.

Now back at the all-boys orphanage in Bolivia that he calls home, Alfonso is, by all accounts, faring well. So well, in fact, that he has grown to face a dilemma.

When he isn't practicing the flute, Alfonso waters the plants at the orphanage every day. He beats other boys at marbles, despite the steel rods buried in his back. And he reads deep into each night. He recently blazed through his first Harry Potter book — in English. He has grown several inches. When no one's looking, he plays soccer.

But Alfonso's survival has also brought change. He's outgrowing his orphanage, and it may be time for him to move on, with boys his own age. But with his physical challenges, he may not be ready.

Alfonso's home is shared with 24 other boys at Casa Nazareth, a small orphanage in Cochabamba, a city of about 500,000 in a fertile valley in central Bolivia. Two American nuns and a volunteer from Rhode Island also live inside the large, gated house.

The boys share two large bedrooms, stuffed with bunk beds. Most days, they eat rice, soup or bread. One Sunday lunch, they were treated to fried chicken legs and tomato salad.

Every night, after they shower and finish their schoolwork, the boys gather in the living room, each one wearing knitted slippers and pajamas with black-and-white polka dots. They watch an hour of TV. They pray together. And then they drift off to sleep.

Most of the boys are between 6 and 10 years old. During the day, noses running, they rumble around, bumping into each other, getting into trouble, or crying because of it. They shout their names to anyone who asks: Celso! Jose Rios! Edilberto! Guido! Jimmy! Luis Fernando! Wilson! ...

Alfonso is the oldest child at Nazareth, and he's very observant and usually quiet compared to the others. While the other children pile into taxis to the four-hour-a-day public school, Alfonso goes to Tito's Place, a nearby private school. Most subjects are taught in English, and class doesn't get out until 3p.m.

This school — three stories, brick walls, neat white trim, $150-a-month tuition — is Alfonso's greatest hope, and the source of his current dilemma.

"He needs education, and he needs English. With his back, he won't be able to do physical labor," says the 61-year-old director of Casa Nazereth, Sister Mary Catherine Feldewert of the Precious Blood Sisters. "He has the personality. With his personality and his English, he has a future."

He could find work in the growing tourism industry or maybe study at a university, Feldewert and his teacher, Valdivia Kathia, hope. In a country where nearly 20 percent of the population has no work, being bilingual is an amazing asset.

But Alfonso turns 13 next March. Casa Nazareth is designed for boys much younger. Most of the boys his age have moved to the San Martin orphanage for older boys, about 45 minutes away. At Casa Nazareth, the staff is worried that Alfonso might be lonesome without friends his own age.

But San Martin is too far away for Alfonso to attend Tito's Place school. Alfonso's sponsors, Sherwin and Jerri Shinn of Issaquah, who pay for his schooling, say they also worry that the older boys are too rough-and-tumble for Alfonso.

"He would have to compete physically with the older kids at San Martin — the pig piles and the other stuff that older boys do," says Sherwin Shinn, a dentist who first met Alfonso five years ago.

Alfonso has little memory of his father, who died young of tuberculosis. Alfonso's early years were spent in a tiny, isolated village three hours from the nearest road. His mother and two younger siblings still live there. They speak only Quechua, one of the languages of the native Indians in Bolivia.

About eight years ago, a group of nuns doing earthquake-relief work saw Alfonso and his hunched back and brought him to an orphanage because his family was too poor to pay for medical care.

He met the Shinns while they were on a relief mission. With donations from Issaquah schoolchildren and free tickets from an airline, the Shinns brought Alfonso to the U.S. Dr. Ted Wagner, a surgeon at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, agreed to perform the surgery for free.

So even at his young age, Alfonso has seen and done more things than most people in Bolivia ever will.

He has ridden a plane. He has survived a 12-hour operation. He has learned English while living in a well-off American suburb. At home at the orphanage, he keeps a picture on his small dresser of himself and two friends from Issaquah. They're enjoying a Mariners game at Safeco Field.

"There's something special about Alfonso's spirit," Sherwin Shinn says. "Like someday, he can do something great for his people. This little boy's life was saved for a reason."

At the orphanage, Sister Feldewert says, it helps somewhat that several other boys also have physical deformities and other difficulties. One boy is half-paralyzed. Another has a tumor in his jaw. Another is deaf. So Alfonso, who has a large, worrisome bump on his chest, doesn't stand out as different.

"He's very strong. He's had to be," Feldewert says. "I know there will be hard times along the way. But he's gone through lots of hard times already, and survived."

At school, Alfonso is "very sweet to his classmates," Kathia says. "He doesn't discriminate against people. He's very quiet but at the same time very open. ... He tells people about the U.S. That helps him a lot."

Late at night, Alfonso snuggles in bed with a large green teddy bear and reads to himself. He struggles with some words, such as shrugged, hopelessly and slippery. But he always plows on.

In two nights, he's made it through 100 pages of the children's book "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom."

He is allowed to keep the light on as long as he likes.

"My head never hurts because I like to read," he says. "But when all the kids are quiet, I need to read in my mind."

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or