Immigration authorities allowed Crystal Perez-Zazueta’s mother to cross the border and be at her bedside at Banner Children’s Hospital in Mesa when the teenager was near death last week.
Now, they have the power to let her stay longer. Compared with the sound and fury of the often complex immigration debate in the state and nation, Perez-Zazueta’s story presents simpler equations: Life and death. Mother and daughter. Patient and caregiver. Perez-Zazueta, 16, is a U.S. citizen and gravely ill with lupus, an inflammatory disease that has led to kidney failure, high blood pressure, ulcers and pneumonia. The other members of her family are Mexican citizens.
Her condition was grave last week. She collapsed in her hospital room, her heart stopped and it took 10 minutes to revive it. The hospital, located in Banner Desert Medical Center, called for her mother, Olivia Ortega-Zazueta, to come from Mexicali. Border officials approved the hospital’s request, on humanitarian grounds, to allow her entry.
It cost the family $265 for what’s known as a humanitarian parole. It’s a tidy sum. Olivia said she and her husband together earn $110 a week.
When the eight-day visa was to expire, and it was clear Olivia could not afford to apply for an extension, Crystal’s doctor and staff at the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit chipped in $200 so the mother could remain in Mesa.
“We felt that it was important for mom to be with her child,” said Dr. Imad Haddad. “We thought that this was our duty and we never thought twice about it.”
Doctors hope the teenager’s condition will stabilize and eventually she’ll be a candidate for a kidney transplant. Having her mother nearby is part of her treatment plan, Haddad said.
Support of friends and family typically aids in patient recovery. But Crystal is very sick, he said, and “we don’t know what the future holds for her.”
Olivia remains here legally, living with a sister in Mesa, pending the decision from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“The mom, from the very beginning, has always wanted to do this the right way,” said Amira El-Ahmadiyyah, a Banner Desert social worker coordinating Crystal’s care. “The whole time Crystal’s been ill, she’s been working on getting a work visa.”
Crystal has been hospitalized at Banner Desert three times since December because of complications from lupus, and each time she’s arrived sicker than before. The disease led to renal failure last month, requiring Crystal to be on dialysis. Because she is a U.S. citizen, she’s qualified for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, El-Ahmadiyyah said.
Until Crystal’s collapse, however, her mother stayed in Mexico with her husband, 9-year-old son and extended family, including Crystal’s grandparents.
And that’s exactly where Crystal wants to be.
“I want my father and my brother,” she said in Spanish, as her mother brushed her hair into a ponytail. “There’s nothing fun about being in the hospital.”
Hooked up to a dialysis machine and midway through a three-hour treatment, the outgoing girl speaks longingly of her dogs and cats back home, her friends and her father’s cooking.
Crystal’s face is puffy from the steroids she’s taking to combat pneumonia. Her hair is thinned by chemotherapy and she’s covered in blankets to ward off chills. Olivia and a nurse wipe her brow with cold washcloths.
Still, she teases Olivia and the nurses, and makes a pouty face when she talks about missing her animals. She lights up when she describes the colorful pens she uses to write in her journal and the therapy dogs who recently stopped by her hospital room.
She hasn’t attended school since seventh grade, but when she is well, Crystal says, she wants to become a nurse.
The staff at Banner Desert is smitten by Crystal, and amazed at her recovery so far.
“She is a very smart and sweet girl,” Haddad said. “And she has a very good sense of humor.”
Haddad would like the teen to remain in the United States for follow-up treatment and dialysis. Olivia has asked federal immigration officials for six more months. The maximum allowed for humanitarian parole is one year. “They could say no, or they could say, ‘We’ll give you one month,’ “ El-Ahmadiyyah said. “She still needs her mom.”