Blessed by the kindness of others
In August 2004, Chinonye Omeje was stirring a pot of stew outside the family’s hut in their Nigerian village. The pretty, slender 14-year-old suffered an epileptic seizure and fell face-first into the fire, the pot dumping its scalding contents onto her head. Her injuries were grievous: Much of her face was melted away, along with an ear. Her right hand was disfigured, and there were deep scars on her neck and chest.
She spent a year in an unsanitary, understaffed rural clinic, wrapped like a mummy in gauze bandages. There she was discovered by a Nigerian-born American citizen, who arranged for Chi Chi, as she is called, and her mother, Helen, to come to Boston for medical treatment.
Boston Shriners Hospital for Children began pro bono reconstruction on her face, and Dr. Victor Perez of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami agreed to attempt to restore some vision. In 2009, Chi Chi regained some sight in one eye and was able to see her mother’s face for the first time in five years.
With help from the nonprofit Children’s Burn Foundation, mother and daughter were able to get an apartment in Milton, where the public school system provided a tutor. Devout Christians, they joined Bethel Pentecostal Church in Dorchester, whose congregation has embraced them. A pro bono attorney helped them to get an extended medical visa.
A huge bonus occurred when Chi Chi got connected three years ago to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where she flourished. At graduation last spring, Chi Chi had a whole row of well-wishers. There were whoops as she walked down the aisle with her white cane, and louder whoops when she received the class leadership award.
But the biggest smile in the place belonged to Chi Chi. “I love Perkins,’’ she says. “This is where I found my friends.’’
They love her there, too. “Chi Chi has a profound spirit of hope and joy,’’ says one staff member. “She believes in possibilities, and it’s almost as though her believing makes the possibilities come true.’’
Since I first wrote about Helen and Chi Chi in 2007, I have come to know them well. (I have been “God-blessed’’ by them so often, I should be in good shape with the Almighty for life.)
In my work as a reporter, I’ve interviewed scores of victims and heroes (and scoundrels). I do not exaggerate when I say that Chi Chi and Helen are the bravest people I know.
Helen worries, of course, but never complains. Chi Chi’s doctors have told her they wish they had more patients like her, with her cheerful attitude despite extensive - and doubtless, painful - medical treatment.
There have been setbacks. Chi Chi’s partial vision, restored by Dr. Perez, has faded because of infection. She can no longer see, but Perez is still working with her.
The women’s main sorrow is not seeing their loved ones back home for seven years now. Chi Chi has seven siblings, along with her father, in Nigeria, which is rife with corruption and poverty. A school teacher earning about $500 a year - when he was paid - her dad has been forced into retirement to make way for an official’s relative who wanted the job. Today, he makes a living from the three goats he breeds.
Helen’s youngest was 12 when she last saw him; now he is 19. “He’s a big boy now,’’ says Helen, who buys $2 calling cards for brief weekly calls back home. “He says, ‘Mami, when am I going to see you again?’ ’’
Since Helen and Chi Chi left home, a daughter has married, a son-in-law has died of malaria, and three grandchildren - Precious, Favor, and Jennifer - have been born.
Though 21 is a landmark birthday celebrated here, Chi Chi’s luck began to go south when that birthday arrived for her a year ago. She “aged out’’ of both the Children’s Burn Foundation and Shriners Hospital, which serve clients only until age 21. The Milton school system paid her way at Perkins until she turned 22, in October.
Helen panicked: How would they pay the rent? Who would finish the substantial work needed on Chi Chi’s face? How could she continue her education? At graduation from Perkins, she had received a certificate, not a diploma, since she had missed so much class because of medical appointments.
Some of those worries have been put to rest. Helen says: “I thank God for America.’’ She believes - and she’s no doubt right - that her daughter would be dead if they hadn’t come here.
Through an informal “dream team’’ - their pro bono attorney, Perkins, Chi Chi’s primary care physician, their church, the town of Milton social worker, neighbors - Chi Chi’s future appears brighter.
Perkins has awarded her a scholarship to attend class three days a week for this school year. The school has also helped with rent, as have many others, though only for the short term.
Perhaps most important, Brigham and Women’s Hospital is providing facial reconstruction with Dr. Julian Pribaz and Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, who led the team that did the first full face transplant in this country.
Chi Chi has recently gone in a few times to have her back injected with fluid, stretching her skin and leaving humps, which is making the skin softer for grafting purposes. Again, never a complaint or whimper.
Helen doesn’t know what the future holds, but as usual, she believes God will provide. “If you trust God and do the right things, God will help you and allow nice people to come into your life.’’
For whatever reason, secular or spiritual, it’s true that Helen and Chi Chi Omeje have depended on the kindness of others, who have yet to let them down.
Donations can be sent to the Chinonye Omeje Victory Fund, Citizens Bank, 1575 Blue Hill Ave., Mattapan, MA 02126.
Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.