Doctors call him the Cheshire cat.
Sitting quietly in an oversized patient’s chair, 16-year-old Jespa Awomah grins ear to ear as a translator carefully explains his upcoming surgery schedule.
Awomah experienced severe, debilitating burns at 10 months old in his native Cameroon. Traveling from a rural village, he has come to Torrance to prepare for a yearlong surgery and rehabilitation schedule to increase mobility in his left arm and give him the ability to close his left eye. But despite the grueling months of surgery that await, friends and family say he’s livelier and more outgoing than ever.
“He never had many friends in school because the other kids would shy away from him,” said translator Rebecca Akumbu. “That shut him down a bit, but now, with the hopes of being treated, he has opened up. He’s more sociable. Hopefully, things are going to change.”
Awomah was seriously burned when he crawled into a stone fire pit inside his family’s hut home in Cameroon. He lost the use of his right arm and left eye and suffered nerve damage that prevents him from closing his right eye and growing hair near his forehead. He carries a plaid green cloth to wipe the constant drainage from his left eye. Until now, Awomah’s medical treatment consisted of a few bandages at a local clinic. As the middle child in a home with 12 siblings, Awomah is active with household chores. He helps his family harvest vegetables, takes care of cattle in the fields and attends school and he especially enjoys reading the Bible.
Awomah’s thirst for learning led to him to a collection of donated books in his village sponsored by Plant A Seed, a nonprofit organization in Torrance. While rummaging through books, he captured the attention of Akumbu, a local volunteer, who sent his photograph to her sister, Ruth Akumbu.
The Harbor City resident and founder of Plant A Seed began exploring ways to help Awomah get medical treatment. In 2012, she traveled to Cameroon with Rachel Mereness, who took a video highlighting Awomah’s story for a social media campaign to raise funds and bring him to the States. Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Burn Center began working with the Children’s Burn Foundation to fund Awomah’s travel and medical treatment costs. He finally made the 19-hour journey last week from Cameroon to begin reconstructive surgical treatment at Torrance Memorial, where he met with the team of doctors and nurses who will lead his care.
“We were so fortunate to hear of Jespa’s journey and be able to step in and provide 100 percent of his medical care and accommodations,” said Carol Horvitz, executive director of the Children’s Burn Foundation. “Bringing him here to make these life-changing surgeries for Jess … he’s gonna have a whole new life.”
Matthew Reiss, a burn and reconstructive plastic surgeon at Torrance Memorial, said Awomah will undergo at least a half-dozen surgeries during his yearlong stay in the South Bay.
“Ideally, we can get a lot of that done within the next six months so that the last six months before he leaves, he has time to heal,” Reiss said. “And then, if there’s little tweaks and adjustments that need to be done, we’ll have time to do that.”
Within the next couple of weeks, Reiss said his team will perform surgery on Awomah’s left eyelid and address the problem in his elbow. From head to toe, he said, Awomah’s biggest issue is the reconstruction of his left eye, which will be accomplished by using a prosthetic. Because of the constant draining and tearing from that eye, Awomah will undergo a procedure to re-create his tear duct and fix his left ear, which is rolled up and cuffed.
“I had seen pictures of him before so I knew kind of what he looked like but it was exciting to see that some of the issues that I thought would be really hard to fix were actually not as difficult,” he said.
The surgeons also will perform surgery on his arm to release the elbow and hand, which are bound together from injuries sustained in the fire. However, Reiss said it is unclear how much hand function he’ll have down the road.
“I told him that our biggest goal at the end of the year was that instead of shaking his left hand, I can shake his right before he leaves,” Reiss said. “It’s a great opportunity for all of us to do something good and for him hopefully to make a whole new life for himself once he goes home.”
To follow Jespa Awomah’s journey, visit www.facebook.com/childburn/.