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Heartfelt gesture

Ortiz helps establish cardiac unit for children in Dominican Republic

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- Last January, David Ortiz was preparing for the 2006 baseball season in his hometown of Santo Domingo. Unlike previous seasons, there was a special urgency for the Red Sox slugger; as a member of the Dominican Republic national team, he knew his participation in the World Baseball Classic would cut into his spring training. There was no time for distractions.

But one day he took a break.

"My friend says, 'Hey, let's go to this one place, I just need five minutes from you,' " Ortiz recalled.

And that request helped save the life of 12-year-old Diana Reyes, who was born with a hole in her heart.

Dr. Fred Madera, a surgeon with the Heart Care Dominicana Foundation, which was established to aid indigent children with congenital heart disease, will never forget Big Papi's visit.

"He showed up [at the Hospital General de la Plaza de Salud in Santo Domingo]," Madera said. "He saw kids with purple lips and purple nails, because of a lack of oxygen. He started talking to the parents. 'Hey, you like baseball?' They said, 'Yeah, but my kid has never been able to play. He's gasping for air.'

"Then [Ortiz's] eyes got watery. This huge guy was very touched."

Ortiz saw a dozen kids that day. One wore a Red Sox cap and said his dream was to play baseball, but he couldn't.

"Ortiz noticed he was big," said Madera. "He said, 'That could be me.' He kind of wiped his tears -- he cried. I thought, 'Hmmm. This big guy, I didn't know he had tears.' He said, 'Well, you're gonna play baseball,' and he signed a baseball."

Ortiz also saw a child who had just come out of surgery.

"He learned how one child's illness affected the whole family," said Nelvea Pelaez, executive director of Heart Care Dominicana. "The social impact is more than fixing a hole in the heart of one kid.

"We had to take him out. He had this look on this face -- not looking at anybody, just gazing at the horizon. All he said was, 'I have to do something about this. I'll be back.' "

Less than a year later, Ortiz kept his promise and returned with a check for $200,000, enough to start the first pediatric cardiovascular unit in the Dominican Republic.

"When I saw David go into the intensive care unit, I didn't see a big star going in there," said Pelaez. "I saw someone letting their real feelings come through. When you see that, you say, 'Oh my God, this is an original -- not like a politician or a movie star.' "

Ortiz isn't embarrassed to acknowledge that he cried.

"Yeah, I get a little bit sad about it," he said. "It hurt my feelings. When you see a child that needs help and you know if you make a move, you can make it happen . . .

"I went back to the States and started working [on raising money].

"Baseball is not everything in my life. I have a lot of things I worry about, just like I worry about baseball. There's some people out there struggling badly.

"I'm telling you, a bad day at the field is not even close to what they go through. A bad day on the field, you can replace it the following day. Sick people, a sick kid, there is no way to replace that until somebody makes a move to help the children out.

"I think of a bad day at the field and a good day at a hospital. The good day at the hospital can make your whole year. That's the way things seem like to me."

Stepping up to the plate
Nearly 1 percent of children born in the Dominican Republic have some sort of birth defect that requires surgery. Because there is no pediatric cardiac hospital in the country, sometimes a US team of surgeons, in a mission of mercy, will save a few kids in a nation in which more than 1,000 children are in need. Few can afford the $40,000 operation in the United States. In the Dominican, the operation costs $5,000.

But Ortiz came through in the clutch again.

"We've already operated on four children thanks to David Ortiz's sponsorship," said Dr. Pedro Urena, president of Heart Care Dominicana, who studied at Brown University. "Some of the rooms are still under construction."

There are more than 600 children on the Heart Care Dominicana waiting list. "Sometimes they call a family and say, 'Bring your kid in,' and there's this silence and the mother says, 'I wish you called last month, our girl has died,' " said Pelaez. "That's when you have to go on rounds and look at the faces of the kids that you fixed; otherwise, you won't do it anymore."

Reyes was one of the first to benefit from Big Papi's generosity. She was the only one in the still-being-constructed patients room when Ortiz toured the facility earlier this month. She had a doll, a heart-shaped red pillow, and a smile that lifted everybody's spirits.

Ortiz, who has a natural way with kids, was impressed.

"She was really happy and excited about seeing me," said Ortiz. "She was thanking me for what I did. When she was thanking me, I was like, 'No, don't thank me, thank New England. Thank the Red Sox and those fans that donated money.' "

The Red Sox Foundation matched funds, and fans, corporate sponsors, and players made up the rest. Ortiz says for him, it's easy.

"The athlete has the capacity to collect money," he said. "I'm really excited about what I'm doing and I'm going to keep on doing it as long as I can."

A big moment
Recovering in the new cardiovascular unit -- which officially opens next month -- in the pediatric wing of the hospital known as CEDIMART ( Centros de Diagnostico y Medicas y Telemedicina ), Reyes acknowledges she has never seen Big Papi play; she only knows him from commercials and billboards. For this event, the media were out in full force. Ortiz also met the Dominican first lady, Margarita Cedeno de Fernandez, to discuss the plight of Dominican children. She called him a "true ambassador."

Ortiz, looking stylish in a black sports jacket, red shirt, red shoes, designer sunglasses, and turquoise earrings, first visited a packed room with sick kids. It will be the intensive care unit when it is finished. There he signed the oversized $200,000 check.

"Hopefully everything keeps going and the children get better," he said. "Everything is looking good and I see a lot of happy faces out there. God bless you guys."

Then he visited Diana's room.

"I was frightened at first, he's so big," said Diana. "But he was very nice. Afterward I felt so wonderful. He resembles the poor people, the real people. I'll be grateful forever. I'll pray every day that he hits more home runs."

When Big Papi kissed her twice, her eyes lit up brighter than the lights of Estadio Quisqueya, where the local stars play.

She said it was the first time she was kissed by a boy. A very big boy.

Ortiz chatted with her and signed some baseballs for the nurses. Then he was whisked off to the Red Sox Academy near Santo Domingo, where a batting cage was named in his honor.

"What David Ortiz has done for us is something that we never could pay back," said Reyes's mother, Jacqueline, who works on a textile assembly line for $31.58 a week -- barely enough to support Diana, buy her medicine, and feed her two baseball-crazed siblings.

"It is beautiful to give a child back her life. It's something priceless. God bless him wherever he is. It's a miracle."

'It comes from my parents'
Ortiz takes his good work in stride. He's already at work on a celebrity softball game for Robert Reid Cabral Children's Hospital in Santo Domingo, where he makes unannounced visits and promises to hit home runs, like a Sultan of Salsa.

"It was a great feeling, knowing that we were helping the children's future of this country," Ortiz said.

Ortiz says for him, it's a natural thing. His charitable fund-raising seemed to increase after the death of his mother in a car crash in the Dominican Republic in January 2002.

"It comes from my parents, my mom and dad," Ortiz said. "They teach me how to do the right thing. I tried to keep it with myself. Now everybody looks at you like a role model. I don't feel that I am.

"People are needing help and, basically, if you can afford to do something to help somebody out, I don't mind."

Last week, Diana Reyes got to go home.

All the relatives were waiting. She was greeted like Big Papi at home plate after a walkoff home run.

"We celebrated," said Jacqueline Reyes. "We got some oats and some plantains and salad. I was jumping up and down."

Diana says the experience has changed her life.

"I want to be a pediatric cardiologist and take care of a lot of kids," she said, still clutching the red, heart-shaped pillow.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption that accompanied a story in Tuesday's Sports section about the Red Sox's David Ortiz helping to establish a cardiac unit for children in the Dominican Republic misidentified two doctors shown with Ortiz. Dr. Pedro Urena was at left in the photo, and Dr. Freddy Madera was at right.)

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Ortiz makes a difference
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