Jespa Awomah was used to seeing children start to cry or run away when they would first see him. In his small, mostly pagan village in Cameroon, Africa, his condition was viewed, even by his family, as a curse or bad omen. When he met people for the first time, he kept his eyes and head down. In 2012, by then age 12, Jespa continued to pray for the same thing he had prayed for every day since he could remember. “I prayed that if it was God’s will, I would remain as I am, but if it was not God’s will that something would happen,” he says.
It seems that year someone was listening. Rebecca Akumbu also grew up in Jespa’s village in Cameroon, but had moved away to a larger city where she had attended college and law school. In 2012, while she did work for an organization called Plant A Seed Africa, which provides books and school supplies to African children in need, a former classmate sent her a photo she just couldn’t shake from her mind. It was a photo of Jespa.
Jespa was born healthy, but at 10 months old he crawled into an open fire pit inside his family’s hut. The closest medical care was a three-hour walk away. His mother made the journey on foot, holding Jespa in her arms. The most the one-room clinic could provide was a few bandages. He returned home to survive his extensive wounds, which took the sight from his right eye, damaged his left eye, fused his forearm to his bicep, and twisted his fingers backwards toward his wrist. The fire also disfigured his ear. Hair no longer grew on the right side of his scalp.
Rebecca shared the photo with her sister Ruth, the founder of Plant A Seed Africa, who was living in El Segundo at the time. Ruth and friend Rashel Mereness, an entertainment attorney from Hermosa Beach, were planning a trip to Cameroon for Plant A Seed. They decided they would pay a visit to Jespa in his village, where he lived with his 12 siblings. During the meeting, he made one simple request—books—so he could attend school.
“What really got in my heart was that what he most wanted was to go to school, even looking the way he did,” Ruth says. “He was industrious. He was working every day alongside his family on the farm.”
Rashel captured a video of Jespa and posted it on Facebook with a plea for help. Two years later, in March of 2014, I (Colleen Farrell, marketing communications manager at Torrance Memorial, a medical center with one of only three verified burn centers in LA County) spotted a Facebook re-post on Rashel’s feed, and felt I was in a position to help.
I forwarded the post to Naiwei Hsu-Chang, RN, a unit lead in the Burn Intensive Care Unit (BICU). She sent it on to Tanya Sorkin at the Children’s Burn Foundation (CBF).
Touched by his story, the Torrance Memorial BICU staff wanted to take Jespa’s case but knew the cost of his extensive surgeries and rehabilitation would be in the seven figures. CBF offered to sponsor his treatment. Nearly two years later, an agreement was forged to fund Jespa’s medical care at Torrance Memorial at a deeply discounted rate. Ruth agreed to host Jespa in her home, and Rebecca decided to travel to the United States with him to be his caretaker. The pieces were slowly falling into place for Torrance Memorial to take on its first international burn case.
In October 2015, 16-year-old Jespa arrived in Los Angeles to receive his first real medical care. That week, he also ate his first meal at McDonald’s. Soon after his arrival, Jespa met with Vimal Murthy, MD, medical director of the Torrance Memorial Burn Center, and Matthew Reiss, MD, burn and reconstructive plastic surgeon, to get a firsthand assessment of his injuries. Jespa arrived carrying a rag to wipe his functional left eye that constantly teared up due to his injuries. Ruth shared that since Jespa’s arrival, she also noticed he slept with that eye open because his injured eyelid wouldn’t close.
The meeting boosted Dr. Reiss’ optimism. He concluded that through surgery, he could likely release and extend Jespa’s right arm, rebuild both of his eyelids and possibly restore some function in his right hand. He would also extend his scalp to even out his hairline. As final cosmetic touches, Dr. Reiss recommended that Jespa receive a prosthetic right eye and skin tattooing to even out his scarred complexion.
“My biggest hope for Jespa is that at the end of his treatment, he will be able to shake hands with me using his right hand,” Dr. Reiss said.
With the prospect of a miracle within a week of his arrival, Jespa’s serious demeanor transformed. Before his new friends and the medical team, he used his limited English vocabulary, smiled broadly and repeated, “I’m happy, so happy. Thank you.”
In December 2015, Dr. Reiss made good on his promise. After carefully unwrapping bandages post-surgery, before assembled media, Jespa shrieked in obvious pain. But at the sight of his new hand, his tears quickly melted into another smile. Jespa held up his right hand and stared in amazement. He kept saying, “I have a hand. I have a hand. My prayers have been answered.” Dr. Reiss slowly reached to give Jespa’s new hand a gentle first shake.
Dr. Reiss explained that those who meet Jespa can’t help but be moved by his spirit. “When he sees what we’ve been able to do— watching his excitement and happiness about it—it’s priceless,” Dr. Reiss says.
During the next 12 months, Jespa would bravely undergo eight painful surgeries, always waking with a smile. Ocularist Sarah Haddad, B.C.O., B.A.D.O., provided the finishing touches to make him appear more symmetrical—the gift of a prosthetic right eye.
Today Jespa, who once struggled in school, is now an A student at Arena High School, an alternative school in El Segundo. In March, he received the “Every Student Succeeds” Award from the El Segundo School District. This is an award presented to students who have achieved something above and beyond what is expected and have struggled and prevailed. He has also been selected as a finalist for this award among students from the entire state of California.
His Southern California experience has included camp with other young burn survivors, a surfing lesson (he even stood up on the board), frequent strand rides on his bike from El Segundo to Palos Verdes, and piano lessons. Dr. Murthy also arranged for him to attend a UCLA football game (Murthy’s alma mater) at the Rose Bowl, and a meeting and hoops session with members of the Los Angeles Lakers. Now at 17, Jespa has grown from 5 feet, 2 inches to nearly 6 feet, in just a year and half. He once believed this journey might involve removal of his right arm, but he can now bend it and use his fingers. He is setting his sights on becoming a doctor or a pilot and helping his brothers and sisters back home, along with others in his situation.
“The doctors brought back my joy,” Jespa says. “My favorite thing about the United States is that people I meet don’t see a disabled person, who can’t do something. They see the possibilities.”
Rebecca will be Jespa’s legal guardian until he is 18. He will do one more “catch-up” year of high school next year. During this time, he’ll continue to live with Ruth, while she works to obtain her Bachelor of Arts in business admin- istration at California State University East Bay, through an online program. Rebecca is working toward passing the Bar in California so she can again practice law.
Although the journey hasn’t been easy, Ruth and Rebecca, single without children of their own, say they have no regrets and have become wiser from the experience.
“There are many things we would definitely do differently. But we went into this with all heart,” Ruth says. “We essentially became instant parents to a teenager and have watched him turn into a man, emotionally and physically.”
She continues, “Now we just want to see him become independent and be able to survive on his own. We want to get him through high school and we’re hoping he will go to college. If we see him have a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts), I will feel mission accomplished.”
Dr. Reiss recommends additional surgeries to further restore the shape of Jespa’s nose, ear and hand. Ruth and Rebecca have set up a GoFundMe account (www.GoFundMe.com/2K2G3MYK) to raise money to pay for his medical care and living expenses.
“This has been a huge leap of faith. We just pray and hope everything works out. We were very humbled after we set up the GoFundMe account that we were able to raise more than half of what we needed,” Ruth says. “It says so much about people that they are generous enough to help someone they don’t know. It just blew my mind. It’s so amazing and we’re so grateful.”
By Colleen Farrell