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Kevin Cullen

For Tye, one last good act

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 25, 2010

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When she was 4 years old, Andrea Nemethi’s right eyelid started to puff up, like a balloon. After a while, it looked like someone had stuffed a lemon in her eyelid and when Petru and Marta Nemethi brought their daughter to a doctor in their native Romania, he was blunt.

“She has three weeks to live,’’ the doctor said.

He said she had a tumor, and it was inoperable.

When she didn’t die three weeks later, they went to another doctor, who described a surgical procedure that carried only a 5 percent chance of survival and they said thanks, but no thanks.

Other doctors, in Romania and Hungary, said it was inoperable, so Andrea’s parents turned to local, natural treatments. Andrea was put on a strict diet, no milk, no sugars, and, crushingly for a kid, no chocolate. She cried during the cold showers. And the tumor didn’t go away. Her eyelid looked like it would burst.

“We spent so many years, expecting Andrea to die at any moment,’’ Petru Nemethi, a house painter, was saying.

She didn’t die, because the tumor that made her right eye bulge grotesquely was benign. But the happy 4-year-old grew into a self-conscious adolescent, and her parents thought she was doomed to a life of being stared at, of being excluded, of being a social outcast.

She couldn’t go out in the cold or rain because it made her condition worse. She was a hostage to a tumor that didn’t kill her, but killed everything else in a little girl’s life.

Rose Shea manages Dr. Aaron Fay’s practice at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and last month she opened an e-mail from someone she had never heard of: Renata Dragos, Andrea’s middle-school teacher in Carei, Romania. Dragos found Fay’s resume on the Internet and fired off a shot in the dark: there is a 12-year-old girl in Romania that no one can help. Could Dr. Fay help?

Rose Shea fired back: yes.

“It was a message in a bottle, in cyberspace,’’ said Camelia Rosca, a research associate at Boston College and native Romanian who took in Andrea and her father when they came to Boston two weeks ago. “And Rose Shea found it.’’

Doctors and administrators at the Eye and Ear had been looking for a way to honor Ray Tye, the great humanitarian who died two months ago, and Andrea Nemethi turned out to be that way. The operation, scheduled for today, will be free of charge. Local Romanians and Hungarians are pitching in to pay for incidentals.

“We wanted to do something for Ray, so the timing was perfect,’’ Fay said.

Ray Tye made millions in the liquor business and gave it away, paying for operations for kids. He was especially sensitive to children who were disfigured.

“Ray and I worked on a few cases together,’’ Fay said. “I look at Andrea, and I think of one of the cases we did together, a boy from Uganda.’’

The boy from Uganda had a tumor on his eye, but unlike Andrea’s it was malignant.

He died two days after he arrived in Boston, before Fay could operate. After the boy died, Tye urged Fay to perform a postmortem surgery.

“Ray said he wanted the parents to be able to look at their boy one last time, without the tumor in the way,’’ Fay said. “We wanted them to see their boy’s face as it was.’’

Fay regrets only that they didn’t get Andrea here years earlier. He thinks he could have saved her eye.

It’s funny what kids miss. After Fay explained the procedure to Andrea, how her right eye would be shrunk to normal size, how an artificial eye would be inserted, she had only one question.

“Will I be able to go swimming?’’ she asked.

She will. And when she gets back home, her friends can do something they never could before: kiss her on both cheeks.

“Ray Tye would love this,’’ Aaron Fay said. “Ray loved happy endings.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com