Maria de Arechiga sat in a Glendale Adventist Medical Center room, wearing a simple white gown as her friends and family helped gather her belongings.
After a four-day stay, the 50-year-old woman from Mexico was checked out of the hospital Monday, leaving behind 640 grams of hardened, purposeless tissue and 18 years of worry.
Doctors removed a growth that had for years restricted de Arechiga's breathing and swallowing. And they did it free of charge, primarily through the efforts of Robin McCluskey, a Riverside native who teaches English in Mexico, and Lloyd Maguire, a builder and mission volunteer there.
The growth, a result of a thyroid condition, had annoyed de Arechiga, who lives in Valle de la Trinidad, Baja California, for nearly two decades. But in recent years, it had become life-threatening.
Four years ago, de Arechiga rested at her remote Mexico home, preparing to give birth to her 12th child. It should have been a joyous time. Instead, de Arechiga wondered if the baby's day of birth would be the last one that she, herself, would live.
A pair of goiters, each the size of a softball, lodged just beneath the skin in de Arechiga's neck and throat area made breathing and swallowing hard work. Once a small bump at the base of her neck, the stony growth had swollen by the month and squeezed against her esophagus and windpipe.
Mexican doctors showed little optimism when discussing the coming birth.
"They told me that with the last child I would have a heart attack and die," de Arechiga said through an interpreter.
To the surprise of doctors and herself, de Arechiga survived. She had decided to pursue having the surgery as soon as the child was born. But her family lacked financial means and Valle de la Trinidad, 150 miles south of Tijuana, was too far from a facility large enough to provide adequate treatment.
As time passed, the goiter enlarged even more, to the point where de Arechiga had to sleep with her head propped up in order to breathe.
'Hitting the Limits'
"When a goiter like this grows, it grows and grows until the patient can't breathe," said Dr. Steven Gossard, who performed the operation last week. "She was hitting the limits of space in her neck."
It took the intervention of a longtime friend to get de Arechiga out of her stifling situation.
Robin McCluskey met de Arechiga when the woman brought one of her daughters to the clinic where McCluskey works. They have been friends ever since.
McCluskey not only agreed that the need for surgery had become urgent but felt that she could help. In May she contacted Maguire, a builder who worked as a mission volunteer in Mexico, and asked if he "could get some of my doctor friends to take care of her."
Working through a church group, Maguire made contact with Gossard, who agreed to perform the surgery at no cost to de Arechiga. Gossard asked Dr. Glenn Sillcott to assist and Dr. Mark Crawford to perform the anesthesiology, also for no charge. Both said yes.
Maguire approached Glendale Adventist Medical Center last month and officials agreed to waive the usual fees.
Last week, all the plans came to fruition when McCluskey, who spends her summers in Riverside, drove to the Mexican border, picked up de Arechiga, who had been driven from Valle de la Trinidad, and brought her to Los Angeles. Gossard operated Aug. 10 and the patient was ready to leave four days later.
The operation yielded the 640-gram mass of tissue. An ordinary thyroid-fueled growth weighs 40 grams, Gossard said.
Reports to Family
Maguire made the trek to de Arechiga's home this weekend to report to her anxious family. He returned in time to watch Maria de Arechiga check out and tell of her family's reaction.
"The stars lit up in heaven," Maguire said, throwing his hands into the air. "They beamed with joy."
As Santos, 26, the eldest of her nine living children looked on, de Arechiga, sporting a necklace-like scar where her neck and chest meet, talked of what her first deed would be upon returning home.
"I'm going to go to church and give God thanks," she said, adding that she has been the beneficiary of a miracle.