Wheeler: Raleigh nonprofit helps family with medical needs

The streets around the Helping Hand Mission off Rock Quarry Road occupy the mind of Sylvia Wiggins - the small homes packed along them her heart, and the people inside them her soul.

For 30 years, Wiggins has invested all that she is in her nonprofit and in this poor area of the city, where nearly everyone appears to know her by sight. Hugs from the people streaming into the mission for help and gratitude from those she visits inside the houses on her streets are her dividends.

That these are her streets is apparent on a short drive from the mission to the home of one family in need. Several times she rolls down the window to give a hearty "How you doin'?" to someone; each person recognizes her, smiles and waves back.

On this day, she's visiting the mother of a baby who had a liver transplant in June.

Baby Za'Mont weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces when he was born at WakeMed in April at seven months' gestation. His mother, Charise Henderson, says hospital workers realized quickly that there was something terribly wrong with his liver and sent him to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

On the way, he died and had to be revived. Once at the hospital, he was placed on a ventilator, and Henderson was told that no one was sure how much longer he would live.

Za'Mont got sicker and sicker, until he weighed less than 2 pounds. He was transferred to Duke Hospital, which employs a doctor willing to conduct liver transplants on premature babies. Za'Mont was placed on the transplant list in May.

On June 1, someone else's precious 8-month-old died, and Za'Mont received the baby's liver. Henderson, 38, stayed at Duke for the next three months while her relatives looked after her other children, one of whom has sickle cell disease and one who is autistic. Another has had open-heart surgery.

When it was time to leave the hospital, Henderson, who has no car, couldn't take immune-compromised Za'Mont home on a bus, so she called Wiggins.

"She has been a blessing to me," Henderson says, sitting on her couch next to Wiggins and holding a wide-eyed, smiley Za'Mont. "It's a blessing to know there's somebody out there you can count on and help you when you are in need."

Henderson's needs are great. She lost her job at a hotel when her daughter with sickle-cell disease had a prolonged hospital stay.

"The lady said, 'When you going to come to work?' I said, 'I don't know. My child is in the hospital,' " Henderson recalls. "Then the woman says, 'You have to choose between your job and your child.' That's not a choice."

Za'Mont, who has a feeding tube snaking out of his shirt and bandages that have to be changed, requires around-the-clock care, so a job now is out of the question.

Every Tuesday, Henderson must take her little buddy, as everyone calls Za'Mont, to Duke to have his blood checked for signs of rejecting the liver. She still can't carry the baby on a bus. Wiggins makes sure she gets there.

Wiggins hopes some kind soul will realize that an old van is not needed and donate it to the mission, which will in turn give it to Henderson.

"That'd be over-the-top beautiful," Wiggins says as she coos at Za'Mont. "I think baby's first Christmas is going to be all right."

Back at the mission, mere seconds pass before I lose sight of Wiggins, who is swallowed by a wave of people hungry for her ear, her attention, her help, her hugs.

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