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Four Thanksgiving stories to warm LI hearts

The reasons to be grateful are extraordinary: Giving birth to triplets, surviving a lightning strike, finding a son after 35 years, and making a tough medical decision.

Maria Escobar and Jose Hernan Guevara Amaya with

Maria Escobar and Jose Hernan Guevara Amaya with their triplets, who were delivered at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow on Jan. 26. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

On Thanksgiving, members of families across Long Island will take turns saying what they’re grateful for — good health, a new baby, the turkey.

At a few tables, though, the reasons this year will be extraordinary. Surviving a lightning strike. Making a tough medical decision. Giving birth to triplets. And finding a son after 35 years.

Here’s to 100 years

Jack Betteil turns 96 next Wednesday. And he can’t wait to hit the century mark so he can get the free haircut that his barber is promising.

But this time last year, he wasn’t so sure he would celebrate another birthday. He had trouble breathing. Climbing a flight of stairs took all his strength.

The diagnosis was serious. Doctors at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset found that Betteil suffered from aortic stenosis, a buildup of calcium in the aortic valve to the heart. He needed a new valve, and the odds were good that he wouldn’t survive if he didn’t get one.  

But the doctors were hesitant to do the surgery because of his age. For Betteil, of Bayside, Queens, there was a bit of irony: He had survived long stretches in six concentration camps during the Holocaust, but he might not survive a heart problem.

The doctors, though, had an alternative treatment, one they had performed on about 1,100 patients since it was introduced seven years ago.

In April, Betteil underwent a transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedure, or TAVR, which is minimally invasive. After, he called Dr. Bruce Rutkin “a magician” and thanked him for saving his life.

“He is fantastic, unbelievable,” Betteil said this week.  

Born in Krakow, Poland, Betteil was 16 when World War II broke out. He was liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945 from the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria, officials said. Many of his family members, including his parents, grandparents and 12-year-old sister, died.

He moved to America in 1947, and made his living as a television repairman.

“Thanksgiving or no Thanksgiving,” Betteil said, “all my life I will be thankful.”

Out of the blue

Jose Campos knows he’s lucky to be alive, let alone healthy. One day last spring, he thought he wouldn’t be around to see his boy grow up.

On a rainy morning in April, Campos had just stepped off a forklift at his construction job in Bay Shore when lightning struck the ground about 20 feet away. He had a metal cable in his hands.

The lightning came snaking toward him, he recalled. He hit the ground, knocked senseless. About 20 minutes later, he came to, but couldn’t get up. He felt stuck.  

His heart beating hard and fast, Campos started crawling to the company building about 150 feet away. He finally struggled to his feet, his legs shaking violently.

Campos, 48, a native of Honduras, was sure he was going to die. His first thoughts, he said in an interview this week, were of his 9-year-old son and how he wouldn’t be around to care for him.

He suffered burns on his arms and legs, but came away generally OK — probably because the lightning didn’t hit him directly, according to the doctors at Southside Hospital who treated him.

Today, seven months later with Thanksgiving at hand, Campos is especially grateful to still be here to celebrate.

“At times,” Campos said in Spanish, “you have to give thanks to God for what happens and when you survive such serious things.”

‘Moment of complete joy’

Michael Giustizia is spending Thanksgiving in a men’s shelter in Manhattan, but he’s thankful just the same. His life has been looking up ever since he met his 35-year-old son for the first time.

His sister, Maria Giustizia, secretly arranged the March meeting at her home in Mastic.

“It was unbelievable that Maria was able to put everything together,” said Michael, a wrestling standout in his years at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington. “It was a moment of complete joy and happiness.”  

Giustizia, now 58, had never met his son, Johnathan Dyer, a former Marine who fought in the Iraq War. When he was studying at the University of Tennessee, Giustizia had gotten a young woman pregnant, but left school before the baby was born.

He hit a rough patch after that, living for long stretches in a cardboard box on the Bowery in Manhattan.

Years ago, Dyer started looking for his biological father, and finally — mostly through Facebook — connected with Maria Giustizia in late 2012, and they kept in touch. In March, Dyer flew from Tennessee to meet his dad in person.

Father and son hugged, and Maria couldn’t stop the tears.

For Giustizia, the meeting has changed his life. He is upbeat about his future. He even has hopes of getting his own apartment in the city next year.

Reuniting with his son has “brought so much new life to me,” Giustizia said.

Two girls and boy

Maria Escobar and Jose Hernan Guevara Amaya almost lost their triplets.

When Escobar was 16 weeks pregnant, she suffered what doctors at Nassau University Medical Center diagnosed as an incompetent cervix. Essentially, her cervix had opened up from the pressure of carrying three babies at once. She went into labor prematurely.

It was a scary time for Escobar and Amaya, who live in Hicksville. Half of all cases, doctors told Escobar, lead to the loss of the pregnancy and leave the mother at high risk for serious infection.

Doctors saved the babies through surgery. By the 36th week of her pregnancy, in January, Escobar delivered two girls and a boyby Caesarean section. They were just one week shy of full term and the first set of triplets delivered at NUMC since July 2016.

The triplets — fraternal twins Katy and Alison, and brother Steven — were healthy, but had to do a stint in the neonatal intensive care unit until they beefed up. Their birth weight: about 4 pounds each.

At the time, Amaya said, “I’m very thankful for the team here.”

And Escobar was asked if she was thinking about more children.

She simply laughed.

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