Local News

A miraculous reunion

LAKE PLACID- An elderly Hispanic homeless man who was admitted to the Florida Hospital's Lake Placid campus weeks ago finally has a place to go home to. On Saturday, Sebastian Ovalle Espinosa was reunited with his daughter, Juana Ovalle Garcia, after going missing 35 years ago. It's a once-in-a lifetime-story, said hospital administrator Anthony Stahl. "We knew him as Don Jose," Stahl said. "We didn't know who he was. There were no documents. There was some mystery around him."
The John Doe patient had lost a lot of his memory and could not tell staff his name, who his family was or where he could be safely discharged. He communicated only in Spanish. After previous hospital admissions, the patient, now known to be Sebastian Ovalle Espinosa, had been discharged to the home of a friend, where he had been living. But during his last hospital stay, it was discovered that the friend had passed away and Sebastian was homeless. The Florida's Hospital's policy is to provide "a safe discharge," explained Stahl, and nurse Sharlene Landers took up the challenge of finding out who the quiet man in his 80s really was and if he had any family to care for him. Though Sebastian's memory was deficient, with the help of St. James Catholic Church priest Father Luis Albarracin, he shared that he used to work as a migrant worker at Griffin Trees as well as picked citrus in Florida and apples in New York. He also gave the names of his parents and the town where he was from-- Hidalgo, in the state of Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico. "We worked with several different agencies," said Landers, stating she received enthusiastic help from Rep. Tom Rooney's office, the Mexican consulate in Orlando, Sheri Griffin of Griffin Trees, professional guardian Flo Cooper and Nell Hays of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office. Flyers were posted and advertisements were put out all over Mexico asking if anyone knew this man. The magic happened when Landers sent an email with an attached photo to three email addresses of Catholic churches in Hidalgo. Two came back undeliverable, she said, but a priest at the third church replied saying he thought he knew the family and would contact them. Juana Ovalle Garcia, who lives in Colton, Calif., received a phone call from her sister in Hidalgo saying that word had come from the United States that their father might have been found. At first, she didn't believe it. She thought it might be a cruel joke or a scam. A week later her sister confirmed that their brother had seen the photo and agreed it was him. "I'm in shock," Juana said. "I was 16 when my father disappeared, and now I am 51." It's a miracle, she added. The father and daughter were reunited privately earlier in the day. Juana did not recognize him right away, but noted the family resemblance in the ears and nose. Laughing, she also shared how he recalled certain memories from their past that she herself had forgotten-- like how they used to call her little brother "Chavelo." Her father's memory loss prevented him from recognizing her, but he said felt that she was family. The 87-year-old's face lit up when asked if he was happy to see her. "Yes!," he replied simply. Two of Sebastian's brothers live in Texas, and he has seven other children in Mexico. His brother Solomon will be traveling to Florida in the next two weeks to pick him up and help to get the necessary paperwork together for him to return to Mexico and live with another daughter in Coahuila. His wife passed away 20 years ago, Juana said. Sebastian's spotty memory still leaves many holes in his story-- why he went missing suddenly after years of traveling back and forth to the U.S. on a temporary migrant worker visa, why early efforts by his wife and children to find him were unsuccessful, whether or not he was a victim of human trafficking and what conditions he lived in for the past 35 years. Right now, the Florida Hospital staff and his family are simply thrilled that he has someone to go home to. "This was the highlight of my nursing career," Landers said. Juana expressed her thanks to all those who were involved in helping her father and in reuniting her with him. "God will repay you all," she said.