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A Zambian teen gets a chance to be healthy

Anderson Mambwe, 17, faced amputation in Zambia, but in Roanoke he's being made whole.
From: Beth Macy, The Roanoke Times
Published: April 26, 2012

By the time the surgeon repairs Anderson Mambwe's severely deformed feet Friday, the 17-year-old Zambian boy already will have traversed a vast landscape of pain.

In his home village of Kawambwa, near the Congo border, the best doctors could offer was to amputate both legs above the knee. His feet were so misshapen and large - size 17 in length and EEEEE in width - that he could barely walk. Until his trip to Virginia in March, he had never worn shoes.

When Roanoke nurse Karen ReMine, co-founder of a Roanoke County-based medical mission called Orphan Medical Network International, heard about him from a Canadian-based nongovernmental organization that operates in Africa, she knew she had to intervene.

She called Roanoke podiatrist Dr. Chuck Zelen, who agreed "sight unseen" to donate the series of surgeries it would take to get the boy walking comfortably again. She also pitched the project to LewisGale Medical Center, which will contribute more than $100,000 in charity care.

So it went that the scholarly 17-year-old, who enjoys physics and wants to be a lawyer, experienced his first pain-free day in America and will soon be able to walk with a much smoother gait.

Unexpected alliance

Anderson's story has become entwined with that of slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Dana Harrington, whose name he wears on a bracelet.

ReMine and Morgan's mother, Gil, are nurses married to doctors. They also happen to be near look-alikes as well as best friends. When ReMine's family moved to Roanoke County seven years ago and brought the OMNI headquarters with her, it wasn't long before Gil Harrington was running OMNI's mobile wound-care clinics throughout the Copperbelt province of Zambia.

Morgan used to spend hours helping her mother roll bandages and pack medical supplies for her trips. She hadn't been to Zambia yet, but planned to go.

After Morgan was killed in 2009, supporters raised $130,000 in her name to build OMNI's Morgan Harrington Education Wing, part of a 60-acre campus near Ndola that serves 220 children.

"Morgan was an education major at Tech, and we thought, what better way to honor Morgan than to build a school in her name?" ReMine said.

Her mother carried part of her ashes to mix into the foundation of the school.

While OMNI rarely brings children to the United States for surgery, Anderson's case was so dire that both ReMine and Harrington took it on. This is only the second time OMNI has fostered such a medical visa; the first child, a double orphan who needed club-foot correction, was eventually adopted by the ReMines and is now 16.

"When Anderson first got here he was in such pain that he was this little wizened, curled up guy with a pinched face," Harrington recalled. But the minute his pain medicine took effect, his countenance changed. "He's blossomed already, and he hasn't even had surgery yet," she added.

Soon after he was strolling - albeit with an awkward gait - around ReMine's farm, looking at birds through binoculars and feeding her cats.

"He's a deep thinker and a very spiritual person," Harrington said.

In preparation for his surgery, he asked to be baptized at ReMine's St. John Lutheran Church - by its associate pastor, who happens to be Zambian.

"Baptism is very important for Christians and being in America I finally had my opportunity," Anderson said.

'One life at a time'

Fixing his feet will likely require two, possibly three, surgeries along with a six-month stay for recovery before Anderson flies home. When the ReMines have to travel out of town - they have a family wedding and three graduations to attend shortly - he stays with the Harringtons instead. (The ReMines have six children, including adoptees from South Korea, Russia and Zambia.)

"When he arrived, he was barely able to walk at all," said Zelen, the podiatrist. But the upcoming surgeries will reduce his feet to a size 12, giving him a more normal gait.

"I hope that it may alleviate some of his shyness and enable him to assimilate better into his community," Zelen said. "He just wants to go to school and not look like he's sick."

Earlier this week, Anderson learned that doctors would not also be able to correct his knee, which is crooked because of rickets and malnutrition. When ReMine explained that his knee problem wasn't serious enough to merit surgical correction, he was disappointed.

But he understands now that "America isn't a place where you go and push a button and everything gets fixed," as Zelen put it, adding that he may need a joint replacement later in life.

Anderson talks to his mother, who works in the cassava fields, on occasional Sundays, her only day off - via a cellphone she borrows from a friend. In between, they communicate via email, with ReMine typing the boy's messages in English and a friend in Zambia translating the email to his mom via cellphone. (His father died in 2000.)

St. John helps fund OMNI's trips to Zambia as well as the 2,000 "birthing kits" it distributes across northern Zambia every year. The kits cost $1.40 each and consist of a large sheet of plastic so a mother doesn't have to lie directly on a dirt floor, a razor blade to cut the cord, string to tie it off, candle for nighttime delivery, exam gloves, a bar of soap and a washcloth.

"A dollar forty and you're potentially saving two people's lives," ReMine said. "Are we changing the world? No. But we are changing one life at a time, and we're changing Anderson's life forever."

Morgan Harrington's name continues to be a catalyst for good deeds, she said. The Zambian school held a candlelight vigil on the second anniversary of her death.

"Dan [Harrington] once said that Morgan has done more in her death than she did while living," ReMine said. "That's very sad and not what anybody hoped for, but it is what they have now."

While her killer is still on the loose, "the Harringtons have done a wonderful job of finding beauty in the tragedy and keeping her name alive," ReMine said.

As for Anderson, OMNI will follow him and ensure he gets follow-up care along with a college education.

"Someone gave him a gift certificate for books and he bought the periodic table along with biology and physics books," Gil Harrington said. "He gets to go back now and be whatever he wants to be."

This article was originally posted in the The Roanoke Times. View the original article
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