Sofia Mourtzopoulou and Besse Maragos, 2019. Photos by Cori Miller Photography
Thirty-eight years later, Sofia Mourtzopoulou from Greece made a return trip to Minnesota, the place that changed her life forever.
In 1981 Sofia celebrated her sixth birthday at a hospital in Minneapolis, without her parents, while she waited for heart surgery. Her parents couldn’t afford to travel to the US with her, but they were desperate for their little girl to have surgery she needed to save her life, which wasn’t available in her city at that time. They told her a tearful goodbye, and she boarded a plane with two other Greek children who needed heart surgery, and a nurse and a nun who escorted them.
“Making this trip back to the place that saved my life has been a dream come true,” says Sofia. “It was the kindness of strangers that made it possible for me to grow up and live a full life, and I am so very happy that I could return to reconnect and be reunited with Mrs. Maragos, the host mother I loved dearly. I stayed with her before and after my operation. She spoke Greek, and she was very kind to me. We developed a real bond.”
Sofia in Minneapolis, 1981
Sofia is one of 643 of children that Children’s HeartLink brought to Minnesota for heart surgery in our early years, before we began training in-country providers to treat children in need.
When she returned to Minnesota in October, Sofia brought with her a small box containing keepsakes from 1981: a few photos and her hospital ID bracelet that also included the name of her surgeon, our Founder Dr. Joe Kiser. The box also contained several letters sent to her by her host mother Besse Maragos, a former board member and Children’s HeartLink supporter and volunteer for decades.
“I have only good memories from that time,” says Sofia. “I don’t remember the surgery, but I do remember the toys at the hospital and playing with children from other countries. None of us spoke English, but we could play together.”
Sofia with two other Greek children in Minneapolis for heart surgery, 1981
For her birthday that year, Sofia got a Barbie doll, “the doll that every girl in my country knew about but almost no one owned. I still have that Barbie doll and always will.”
Sofia remembers fondly her stay at the Maragos home. “I slept in a room with pink walls and a lot of toys,” she says. “It was the room belonging to Mrs. Maragos’ daughter.”
Her recovery after surgery went so well so that she was able to go to school as soon as she returned home to Thessaloniki, into the relieved and happy arms of her parents and younger sister.
“I live happily,” says Sofia, now 44. “I have a normal life, with my husband and a 9-year-old son. I was able to study law, and now I am a civil lawyer. I see my cardiologist every two years and otherwise have no health issues. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Kiser, Mrs. Maragos and Children’s HeartLink.”
Share your story on our 50 Years Blog! If you were a host family or if you have a Children’s HeartLink story or photos, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.