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Ackerman helps grant dying man’s last wish

A dying Corona man was reunited with his 74−year−old mother from Peru Saturday after U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D−Bayside) made 11th−hour diplomatic efforts.

Walter Vergara, 50, a terminally ill cancer and AIDS patient, will be able to spend his last days with his mother, Elizabeth Prado−Ocejo, who received a visa to travel to Queens after Ackerman convinced the U.S. Embassy in Peru to reverse its decision to twice deny her travel requests.

“This is the best day of my life,” Vergara said at Elmhurst Hospital Center. “I feel such happiness.”

Prado−Ocejo, of Lima, was granted a six−month visa last Thursday and arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport Saturday evening. Vergara’s sister, Rita Vergara, accompanied her mother to the United States and will also spend the next month or so with her brother, who is not expected to live much longer.

As the mother and sister burst into Vergara’s hospital room, the two immediately ran their hands over Vergara’s face, tearfully saying “mi amor,” or my love, over and over.

“There are no words to say what I feel,” Prado−Ocejo said through a translator and Ackerman staffer, Fior Rodriguez. “What I feel, it is an immense happiness.”

Prado−Ocejo’s requests for a visa had been entangled in red tape due to a misunderstanding with U.S. officials the last time she visited Vergara 20 years ago. Prado−Ocejo was asked how long she would be in the country upon her arrival in Miami two decades ago, but she misunderstood the question and believed officials wanted to know the length of her stay in Florida. She replied she would be here for six days, but stayed longer than that, causing all future requests for a visa to be denied.

“I explained to the U.S. ambassador in Peru what had happened, and it was a matter of days before a visa was issued,” Ackerman said.

“You have to face so many problems in this job and being able to really make a difference, even for a short time, and be a comfort to someone in a very, very trying time is gratifying,” Ackerman added. “But it’s sad because you know the ending to the story.”

Vergara, a U.S. citizen who immigrated to Queens from Peru 21 years ago, was a hair stylist at the Jackson Heights salon Zebra. He lived in Flushing before moving to Corona five years ago.

Vergara was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995 and told by doctors six month ago that he also had bone cancer. The cancer has now spread throughout his body.

“He was a great hairdresser, and he is an amazing person,” said Elmhurst resident Maria Patricia Rios, a friend and former client of Vergara’s. “He was always helping people. When I had surgery two years ago, he came to my home to cut my hair. When my son was in Iraq, he would pray with me all the time for him.”

Vergara, who has no family living in the United States, said being able to spend his last living moments with his mother and sister means the world to him.

“My mother is my medicine,” he said, smiling. “She is my love.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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