WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Luna Kosta babbled as she sat in her mother's lap.
Dressed in a frilly pink dress, the nearly 9-month-old smiled any time her mother or cousins leaned in and talked to her.
In less than a year of life, Luna has traveled from her hometown of Korca, Albania, to Indiana for a life-saving surgery with the help of an organization called Gift of Life International. And it's a journey that has inspired those around her.
"She's a miracle," said her aunt Natasha Vasili of West Lafayette. "Babies are so resilient."
Luna was born on Nov. 30 — the first child of Vasili's brother Klaidi Kosta and his wife, Mariela. But the joy of a firstborn was soon overshadowed by worry when Luna's parents found out their daughter had a heart murmur. They hoped it was innocent — but a month later, the family traveled four hours to see a pediatric cardiologist.
The doctor told them Luna had a rare congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot. For an unknown reason, Luna's heart didn't form correctly before she was born, leaving her with four defects that could cause oxygen reduction in blood as it flows to the rest of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Kostas learned Luna would need open heart surgery before her first birthday, but doctors in Albania lacked the equipment to do it.
"It was a nightmare," Mariela told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/19JHGPX ).
So the Albanian couple and the Vasili family in West Lafayette started looking for a solution. They also started praying. They began their search with hospitals in Europe, but had no luck.
The Vasili family shared Luna's story with the congregation at Upper Room Christian Fellowship in West Lafayette. More people began to pray for Luna.
The family decided to contact hospitals in Indianapolis to see if one could help Luna.
At the same time — unknown to them — Tom Clouse, a doctor at St. Vincent Carmel, heard that Upper Room, where his in-laws attended, was praying for a baby in Albania with a heart defect. He emailed Dr. Mark Turrentine at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health to ask for help.
By late spring, the family got the news they needed — Luna had been accepted at Riley and a program called Gift of Life was going to cover her medical costs.
It was an answer to their prayers.
As Klaidi told his sister the good news via Skype, he and Mariela were crying.
"My brother said it was the first time he'd taken a deep breath," Vasili said.
Mariela said the news seemed too good to be true. "It was hard to believe we'd be in the USA," she said.
Vasili's daughter Krisli was on a bus at Purdue University when she found out about Luna's surgery.
"I just started screaming," she said.
Her sister Jovana said she was at Marsh — where both of her parents work — and heard the joyful screaming too.
"We've been praying together for so long," Vasili said. "God answered our prayers."
Even if Luna had been accepted at a hospital, the family knew it would be a huge expense, especially with low incomes in Albania, Vasili said. But with Gift of Life, all the medical costs were covered.
Gift of Life is a program that works with Rotary International and the goal is to bring four or five babies to Indiana each year to correct a congenital heart defect, said Stephanie Kinnaman, the chairperson for Gift of Life for the Rotary district in central Indiana.
The first Gift of Life surgery at Riley was in July 1998, and since then, more than 55 children have had surgery there.
As a mother herself, Kinnaman said it's amazing to see mothers in other countries trust the doctors here to care for their children, and the program is a great way to build friendships worldwide. Luna is a perfect example.
"She is absolutely the epitome of why we do this," Kinnaman said.
She said Gift of Life usually finds the children for the program, but Luna was a special case because the doctors learned about her first.
So with the invitation letter from Riley, Mariela immediately went through a weeklong process to get a visa and bring Luna to Indiana. They arrived on May 7 and Luna had surgery on May 15. Five days later, she and her mom were back in West Lafayette with their family.
Seeing Luna's success and the blessing Gift of Life has been to their family, Vasili said she and her family hope to help other babies someday by hosting families who come for the surgery.
And the support from the community has been amazing — helping to raise money for an emergency fund and sending Luna well wishes, Vasili said.
"We tell Luna, 'You're a celebrity in West Lafayette,'" she said.
Next month, Mariela and Luna will go back to Albania. And when she's a teenager, she'll have to see a specialist to make sure her heart is still OK, said Vasili's husband, Sergei.
But for now, the family is enjoying their time together.
"She's been through so much," Vasili said. "Now, we can relax as a family and enjoy what God gave us."
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com