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For disease victim, a burst of hope, and a fizzle

victorlinscombEDITED.jpg

Victor Linscomb with Santos Flores. Photo from Linscomb/1-2-3 International

Santos Flores’s condition has only worsened since she was featured in a Washington Post story in June. The 22-year-old Nicaraguan was part of a profile I wrote for the Health & Science section about leishmaniasis -- a nasty flesh-eating disease that affects 12 million people worldwide.

Flores is one of those victims. She has mucocutaneous leishmaniasis -- an advanced type that has spread to her face. The membranes in her nose are beginning to disintegrate. The skin on her cheeks is blistering.

The villagers believe her affliction was caused not by a bite from a sand fly, but by a curse a shaman laid upon her mother. And shortly after my story ran, it was discovered Flores is pregnant.

But even after all of this, there was cause to celebrate for Flores and Victor Linscomb, the nonprofit director who has been trying to get help for her.

A Maryland resident read the Post's story and volunteered to provide private medical care for Flores. The reader contacted Linscomb, director of 1-2-3 International. Then Linscomb e-mailed me to deliver the news: "Without your story," he wrote, "there would have been no chance to help her like this."

Then: silence.

As charitable arrangements were being made for Flores, the Maryland reader went quiet. No donation. No private health care.

"The ideas they had were totally unworkable -- 'bring her to Walter Reed'," Linscomb told me. "Between the time they contacted us and the time we could respond with a plan, they apparently had lost interest."

Now, as Linscomb puts it, Flores is doomed.

Sadly, last-minute donations collapse all too often. Linscomb calls it the “emotional response.” Someone reads a story, gets worked up and picks up the phone or writes an e-mail. The intent was there, but the checkbook never quite opens.

Linscomb, 59, says the trick is to catch a person "in the moment" when that shocking photo of a downtrodden child is still in sight or that story of impoverishment is still fresh.

Why are feelings of generosity sometimes temporary? I asked Yulia Dutton, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

"In general, emotions are a very short-lived phenomenon," Dutton says. "We can’t stay in an emotional state that's intense for too long. When people feel compassionate in a moment, that state of pity or compassion is unlikely to stay for too long."

She told me emotions evolved as a method of survival. They tend to override other concerns, such as one's financial ability or desire to make a donation. But a few days or even hours later, Dutton says, that passionate spark wavers and logical thinking kicks back in.

"The lack of follow through used to be upsetting," says Linscomb, who will visit Flores when he travels to Nicaragua later this month. "But now, as we are more tempered, we always just say we will believe it when the check is in the bank."

By Eric Athas  | August 5, 2010; 9:42 AM ET
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