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One look at those big saucer eyes and Torontonians were hooked.
Within days, they’d raised $ 16,000 so Brooklyn’s “Baby Herbie” could come to Toronto for a rare operation to fix a life-threatening birth defect. “He just melted everyone’s hearts,” recalls Toronto Star reporter Dale Brazao about the photo of 7-month-old Herbie Quinones Jr. that ran on the front page in February 1979.
He’d likely die without surgery, warned Dr. Robert Filler, the Hospital for Sick Children’s chief surgeon who had offered to waive his $ 1,000 fee for a procedure he had pioneered. Herbie’s parents, however, couldn’t afford to pay the other hospital costs.
That’s when dozens of Star readers offered to help and the newspaper sent Brazao to New York to bring the family here.
The fragile infant had a condition in which his windpipe was compressed between a major artery and his esophagus, cutting off air flow to his lungs when he swallowed food.
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He “faces death every time he eats,” reported Brazao, who’s now retired.
“Sometimes we actually thought he was gone,” said Dr. Jose Rementeria, chief of neonatology at Brooklyn Hospital. “He would sometimes stay blue for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes.”
With surgery to relocate the artery, relieving pressure on his trachea, Herbie would be able to live a normal life, Filler said.
But after spending six weeks reviewing his case, a U.S. health insurance program would not agree to pay the estimated $ 5,000 in hospital fees.
As medical and welfare officials dithered over treatment and costs, Brazao spent five days with the family, persuading Leticia and Herbert Quinones Sr. to come to Toronto on a free flight offered by Air Canada.
Back home, then-Metro chairman Paul Godfrey and his wife Gina were rallying donors to chip in for other expenses that were out of reach for Herb Sr., a fish market deliveryman earning $ 100 a week.
The city was clearly smitten with the wide-eyed baby as TV cameras, a horde of reporters and a police escort greeted him at the airport on a chilly Saturday in late February.
Two days later, Filler and his team fixed Baby Herbie’s breathing problem in a 3 ½-hour operation.
“He’s a very, very lucky baby,” declared Filler after performing his seventh such procedure.
“We’ll never forget how kind the people of Toronto have been to us,” Herb said as he and Leticia took their healthy son home three weeks later.
Indeed, the lucky lad himself is forever appreciative, as the now-strapping 39-year-old expressed in a recent phone interview from Brooklyn.
“If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here,” he said in a message to Torontonians.
As it turned out, U.S. health insurance finally agreed to pay the family’s hospital costs in 1979 and the money raised by the city was put into a permanent fund, named after Herbie, to help other sick children.
To date, more than $ 21 million has been raised through philanthropic donations, enabling the Herbie Fund to provide specialized medical care to 805 children from 106 countries.
The program requires $ 1.5 million each year to provide life-changing and life-saving surgery for kids like Lin and Win Htut, Siamese twins from Burma who were joined in a Y shape and shared a body from the diaphragm down.
In the summer of 1984, a 43-member surgical team worked more than 17 hours to separate the 2 ½-year-olds. They were left with one leg each and one toddler was given a sex change. The twins had shared one set of male sex organs so doctors gave them to Lin and created an artificial vagina from part of a bowel for Win.
Lin went home a year later while his sister Win needed another three months to heal properly.
She returned in October 1985, accompanied by her favourite nurse, Cindy Guernsey, who had taken her on outings “all over Toronto” to prepare the little girl for life outside hospital.
When Star reporter Michael Hanlon visited the children in their Burmese home two months later, they were “happy, plump and healthy.”
The fund enabled several sets of twins to be surgically separated at Sick Kids, including Hira and Nida Jamal of Pakistan in 1995.
The high-risk, 15-hour procedure to detach the 2-year-olds’ conjoined heads was a first for the medical team.
“It was like seeing a dream come true,” their father, Anwar Jamal, said after seeing the sisters resting apart in their own beds. Sadly, Nida died of cardiac arrest a few weeks later, but Hira was able to return home after a few months.
The family spent seven months in Toronto, assisted by the Scarborough Muslim Association, which raised $ 260,000.
“People in Canada have big hearts,” said a grateful mother, Fatima Jamal.
The city routinely opened its collective heart to help turn Herbie patients into success stories, but Kenan Malkic was among the more poignant cases.
The 12-year-old war victim had lost a leg and both arms in a mortar attack on a playground near his Bosnian home. He arrived in Toronto in late 1994 with his spirit crushed as well, according to a cousin Safiya Adelman, who looked after Kenan and his mother, Aida, during their stay.
Evacuated by Canadian forces from Bosnia, he had his surgery covered by the Herbie Fund while a separate campaign paid for prosthetic limbs and therapy at the Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre (now called Holland Bloorview).
“We’re seeing a brand new little boy,” Adelman told a reporter after watching Kenan become an “ecstatic,” confident child learning to walk with an artificial leg.
Fund administrators and medical staff don’t contact families for an update or progress report once they’ve returned home.
But when the Star caught up with the original Baby Herbie earlier this month, it was all good news.
“I’m doing good. Dr. Filler did a great job,” said Quinones, who’s working as a foreman in the heating and air-conditioning business.
And he has a healthy appetite. His favourite food is lasagna but he also enjoys steak and the occasional trip to an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet.
As he looks forward to celebrating his 40th birthday with his girlfriend this July, he commends the kindness of strangers.
“They took a city kid and gave him a second chance.”
To read more stories on Once Upon A City, click here https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/once-upon-a-city-archives.html. To purchase or browse more photos go to starstore.ca/collections/once-upon-a-city, or visit us on Facebook at facebook.com/TorontoStarArchives or on Twitter: @StarHistoricPix.