She survived a plane crash. Now she’s revolutionizing health care in Nicaragua

September 18, 2014, 2:30 PM UTC
Courtesy: April and Gabriel Flores of Native Kind

Looking at Vivian Pellas, you would never know she was once ravaged with burns and broken bones, and barely survived. She is polished and all smiles as she reaches in for a handshake, but her hand is masked by a glove that covers scars from burns she suffered in a plane crash 25 years ago.

Pellas was one of only ten survivors, including her husband, of the Boeing 727 that crashed in the mountains of Honduras in 1989, killing the other 149 passengers.

But that was just the beginning of her ordeal. Pellas’s injuries were too severe to treat at the local hospitals in Nicaragua, where she lived, so she traveled to many different doctors and specialists located in various countries across the world. And the road to recovery was painful: With 62 fractures and burns all over her body, Pellas was transported between five different

hospitals for surgeries—enduring long, bumpy car rides up hilly mountain roads.

Once she finally recovered, Pellas was inspired to make the process smoother for other burn victims. While burns do not tend to be a problem in high-income countries, they are a serious health concern in many low- and middle-income countries, such as Nicaragua, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates that nearly 200,000 people worldwide perish in fires each year, while about 70,000 more die of other types of burns.

Pellas knew, however, that few Nicaraguans would be able to afford the many surgeries, rehabilitative care and psychological treatment that are typically required to fully recover from such injuries. So with her own experience in mind, Pellas worked to create a state-of-the-art burn center—where all services would be free.

“I promised God that because my husband and I were the ones who got burned, I was going to do it for unprivileged children free of charge,” Pellas says.

Two years after the plane crash, Pellas opened her clinic, The Burned Children Care Foundation (or APROQUEN, the acronym of its Spanish name), in Managua, Nicaragua.

Staffed with a wide range of professionals—from garment designers of burn-covering sleeves to rehab therapists helping patients regain motor skills—APROQUEN provides additional health services to children beyond burn treatment, such as cleft lip and palate repairs. To date, it has performed nearly 33,000 free surgeries.

burn victim APROQUENA child burn victim and his mother recover at APROQUEN. Courtesy: April and Gabriel Flores of Native Kind

“I was the patient, so I see the other side of the coin,” Pellas says. “Burns are a forgotten cause. We can be a voice for the burn victims of the world.”

APROQUEN has partnered with several American doctors who advise and help train the clinic’s staff, including Patrick Byrne, director of the division of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins University, who has worked with Pellas for nearly a decade.

“She’s developed an organization that’s able to get things done, and that’s really the key—to be able to inspire people to come together,” Byrne says. “In my experience, it’s quite unique.”

The hospital is funded by a number of donors and sponsors, including Pellas’s husband Carlos Pellas, chairman of the Pellas Group, a Central American corporation with more than 25 subsidiaries.

Now, as more patients flock to the clinic seeking free treatment—often showing up with burns from stovetops or burning trash—Pellas is aiming to raise another $50 million in donations from public and private sources.