Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Billionaire’s Wife Who Endured ’Hell’ Funds Kids’ Burn Center

Vivian Pellas woke up to the sound of her husband, Carlos, shouting her name. He was yelling for her to follow him out of a burning aircraft.

“Vivian, sigame,” he said in Spanish. “Follow me.”

She stumbled out of what was left of Servicio Aereo de Honduras flight 414 just moments before it exploded in a ball of fire and twisted metal and screams. She couldn’t feel the 62 bone fractures or the skin melting off her face.

The pilots of the Boeing 727 had misjudged their approach to Tegucigalpa’s Toncontin International Airport and slammed into a mountain. More than 130 passengers were killed. The Pellases were among the fewer than a dozen survivors, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its December issue.

“I remember a light and going through a tunnel, and suddenly I was outside of the plane,” Vivian recalls. Carlos, who was also seriously burned and lost parts of four fingers in the accident, led his wife to the nearest road. They hailed a pickup truck, and the driver drove them two hours down the mountain to a hospital in the Honduran capital.

Vivian Pellas, who was 35 in 1989 when the plane crashed, underwent years of skin grafts, surgeries and rehabilitation, depending initially on morphine to alleviate the pain.

“My face broke off into pieces,” she says. “The morphine was so I didn’t die of shock from the pain. It was like I was in hell.”

Today, Pellas sports long red hair and has no visible scars on her face. She looks at least a decade younger than her 60 years.

Cuban Refugee

The daughter of a well-to-do Cuban businessman who fled that country, Vivian Pellas moved to Nicaragua when she was 7. She says she felt she had no mission in life before the plane crash. She had married Carlos Pellas, now a billionaire, when she was 22, and although she had a passion for dance, she spent much of her time raising their three children.

As she suffered through the treatments, she found a cause: She would start a burn center for children in Managua. The facility, called the Association for Child Burn Victims in Nicaragua, or Aproquen, opened in 1991. It has treated more than 11,000 patients, all free of charge, in 23 years and today also treats some adults.

To create economies of scale and attract top-notch doctors, the Pellases built a full-service medical facility, Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas, next door. It’s now one of five in Central America certified by Joint Commission International, a hospital accreditation organization.

Children at Risk

Children in developing countries are at higher risk of burns than in the developed world and are seven times more likely to die from a burn, according to the World Health Organization. In Nicaragua, child burns usually involve kitchen accidents or piles of burning trash, a common form of garbage disposal, says Dr. Ivette Icaza, the center’s head of rehabilitation. Her unit runs a prevention program in which Aproquen sends clowns into local schools with victims to teach their classmates how to avoid and treat burns.

The burn center has its own in-house seamstress, who stitches custom Lycra garments. Lycra is used to compress and mold scar tissue, which can deform a victim’s hands or feet while healing takes place around joints. Pellas wore a Lycra garment over her head as she recovered and still wears one on her arm.

The burn center’s co-founder and head of research is Dr. Michael Carstens, a Stanford University-educated doctor who uses the Nicaragua burn center as a laboratory to develop new stem cell–based burn treatment therapies. He uses a patented process to separate stem cells from a patient’s fat; the stem cell “liquor” is then injected beneath scar tissue.

Stem Cells

“Stem cells can eat scar,” Carstens says. “They can become other cells. They reduce inflammation.”

While the type of device Carstens employs to treat scars using fat stem cells has been approved by European regulators, it hasn’t yet passed muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Pellases have been the burn center’s major benefactors and still contribute $3 million a year in cash, personnel and equipment, according to Vivian Pellas. The family and Carstens have started a drive to raise a $50 million endowment for the center.

“We want to secure the future of all these children,” she says. “When you have an accident, you promise everything to God. The question is whether you keep the promise.” 


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