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December 28, 2006

Laura’s Smile

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/lauras_smile_20061229

Laura Benichou was born on June 9, 1998, with a hole in her heart. This hole probably saved her life, because she was also born without her main pulmonary artery.

The blood had to go somewhere, so it went through the hole. Her condition would take too long to explain, but one result was the lowering of the oxygen level in her blood to 75 percent and below (normal is 99 percent to 100 percent), which meant that her body had to compensate by producing more red blood cells. This in turn thickened her blood and caused other complications, like periodic brain seizures.

The first major seizure happened before she was a year old. To save her life, the top cardiac team at a major hospital in Los Angeles performed an 11-hour operation that implanted small "pipes and faucets" to help normalize the blood flow between her heart and lungs. This didn't get the results they wanted, so a few weeks later they went back in to implant larger devices. Laura was not responding well to post-surgery care, which created more complications and led to another operation. After six months and three major operations, Laura was a year and a half old when she returned home.

Laura has never spoken a word, but she can coo, laugh, sigh and cry. At her best, she has taken steps with the help of a walker. She has a thin body with a smallish, sweet face framed by dark-brown hair. She gets 24-hour home care, with three rotating nurses monitoring her breathing and other vital signs.

One of those nurses says that Laura expresses a wide range of "appropriate" emotions, from happiness to surprise to crying for attention. Her favorite movie is "Mary Poppins," and her favorite TV show is "Hannah Montana." She likes toys that move, and she has a fondness for anything slapstick.

Oh yeah, and she loves to smile.

It's that spontaneous smile, which I saw firsthand on a recent visit to her family's handsome high-ceilinged apartment in West Hollywood, that her mother says "hypnotizes everyone who meets her."

I think the smile has also helped her family fight to keep her alive. While she was in the hospital for six months, her parents took turns to be with her at all times. Her brother, a very cool-looking 16-year-old who's a starter on his high school basketball team, is very protective of her and seems to have a knack for making her laugh.

Her mother, Veronique, a thin and perfectly put-together French Moroccan Jew in her early 40s, has become a walking medical handbook. During my late-afternoon visit, while she was serving mint tea in elegant china, she took several hours to calmly answer all my questions regarding their ordeal, and Laura's medical history, even drawing a diagram to explain one of the surgeries.

Veronique says she "stopped living" when the doctors told her the news about Laura. At the time, she had a thriving international trading business. Her husband Richard, an intense, darkly handsome, French Algerian Jew who is a member of the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard, ran a successful garment business. They were also going through a major renovation of their home near the Sunset Strip, which they were preparing for the new baby.

It didn't take long for the house (which they have since sold) and their businesses to take a back seat to Laura. Veronique herself was in a "coma of denial" for the first few months, but once she got out of it, she became quietly unstoppable -- whether fighting in court against insurance companies (so far, she has prevailed at the key hearings) or doing constant research on the Internet to make sure that everything medically possible is being done for her daughter.

And God knows she's done it all, medically and otherwise. She recalls now, with a tinge of disappointment, how vulnerable she was to faith healers of all kinds. She especially remembers the woman mystic from Israel, who spent three days rubbing different oils on her daughter while chanting special prayers. Veronique knew then that because they were people of means, there would be no shortage of miracle workers knocking on their door. But she was too vulnerable to turn them away.

Meanwhile, she was knocking on the doors of emergency rooms at all times of the day and night, whenever Laura had a seizure or some other complication. After a few years, she got so frustrated with the service and long waits that she started a company called SOS Medlink, which coordinates a network of doctors who make house calls (I've used the service myself, and if I had a say on the Messiah, I'd nominate a doctor who makes house calls). She is currently looking for partners to expand the business nationally, in the hope that it will help provide for Laura's future care. Her husband has also gone back to work.

Right now, they're both hoping for a medical success. They don't like the option of doing nothing, because Laura's condition hasn't gotten any better, which leaves her at risk of another seizure (Veronique won't elaborate). At the same time, though, an "out of the box" operation to repair Laura's heart is also delicate. So they're torn between two risky options.

Veronique and her husband will soon make a decision. In the last few days, they have met with a prominent surgeon, and they are exploring a "middle of the road" option that will hopefully do a little repair of the heart and buy them some more time.

In the meantime, they will continue to care for Laura around the clock, take her to parties and to visit family around town, and enjoy one thing that can always fill the hole in their own hearts.

Her smile.

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