Spring 2017

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 20 of 49

PATRONS | Spring 2017 21 AMBASSADORS' CORNER turned 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. e 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 liv- ing 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. ey 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 posi- tion 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 rehabilita- tion 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 Re- becca decided to travel to the United States with him to be his caretaker. e 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. at 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. e 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 pros- thetic 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 hap- py. ank you." In December 2015, Dr. Reiss made good on his promise. After carefully unwrapping bandag- es 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 touch- es 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. is 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 in- cluded camp with other young burn survivors, a surfing lesson (he even stood up on the board), frequent strand rides on his bike from El Se- gundo 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. "e 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. ey 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. "ere are many things we would definitely do differently. But we went into this with all heart," Ruth says. "We essentially became instant par- ents 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 surger- ies to further restore the shape of Jespa's nose, ear and hand. Ruth and Rebecca have set up a GoFundMe account ( 2K2G3MYK) to raise money to pay for his med- ical care and living expenses. "is 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 peo- ple that they are generous enough to help someone they don't know. It just blew my mind. It's so amaz- ing and we're so grateful." JESPA TOSSED A FOOTBALL AT THE ROSE BOWL. The Ambassadors is a premier group that supports the Torrance Memorial Burn Center, Oncology Services, Rehabilita on Services and Health Educa on. For more informa on on the Ambassadors' annual giving program, visit or call Judith Gassner, senior director of Development and Principal Gi s, at 310-517-4704.

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Patrons - Spring 2017