A life transformed Oregonians donate talent, time and money to save the life of a Guatemalan man

06/03/03

PATRICK HARRINGTON

CEDAR HILLS -- Angel Coj Tajtaj leaves Oregon on Wednesday for his home near Antigua, Guatemala, where he was born with a spinal deformity so severe that the growing curvature of his body eventually would have collapsed his lungs and killed him.

During more than six weeks in Oregon, Tajtaj underwent two surgeries at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Cedar Mill. The procedures involved inserting pins into his skull to hold a 40-pound weight about his head, removing a rib and six disks in his back, and inserting metal rods to keep his spine from closing in on itself.

Tajtaj's story is about more than successful surgeries. It is testament to how a handful of folks donated their talent, time and money to transform someone else's life.

Born with spina bifida, a defect that in his case led to deformity so severe people tossed him money on the street, the 21-year-old spent the first nine years of his life in bed before even using a wheelchair. At age 16, Tajtaj moved into a Franciscan halfway house and eventually met John Bell.

Bell, who accompanied Tajtaj to Oregon, went to Guatemala in 1993 to learn Spanish. He volunteered at the halfway house were Tajtaj was staying and ended up starting a nonprofit called the Transitions Foundation to aid disabled Guatemalans.

Bell estimates that through the foundation he has helped more than 1,000 people get medical care.

It was Bell who persuaded Christopher Achterman with the Portland Bone & Joint Center to bring Tajtaj to the United States for surgery.

At Achterman's request, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center donated staff and facilities for the surgery, which Achterman estimates would have cost as much as $90,000. The Portland Rotary Club helped pay most of Tajtaj's transportation costs, and Care Medical Equipment donated a wheelchair.

"I know this operation was very expensive," Tajtaj said Monday, surrounded by Rotary Club members, hospital staff and others. "I am very grateful."

Tajtaj says he will return to Guatemala to study and eventually work in a factory started by Bell that makes affordable wheelchairs.

"John is a person who sees the capability of the people who are incapacitated," Tajtaj said of Bell.

During his time in Portland, Tajtaj saw snow for the first time.

"I wanted to throw myself in the snow because I thought it was like cotton," he said.

"I would like to give my thanks to the people of Portland," he said. "I have a lot of love for them."



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