By Colleen Farrell
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
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
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 trans- formed. 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
“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 med- ical 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.”