Eight-year-old Claudia came to the United States from the West African country of Benin where she lived in a village with her mother and siblings. At age three, she began to develop a disfiguring bony tumor under her right cheek. Her mother took her to a local clinic, but no one was able to help. Over time the tumor grew, and Claudia’s world became smaller; she was hidden away to avoid stares and whispers.
Claudia later recounted how she and her mother would travel from village to village, “walking, walking…” seeking help for the growing tumor. One day, an intermediary with Childspring International, an Atlanta-based organization that pairs children from developing countries with life-saving surgeries, crossed paths with Claudia and her mother and brought her to the attention of the group. The staff of Childspring first tried to connect Claudia with a hospital in Texas, which considered and ultimately rejected her very challenging case. After several months of searching, they presented the challenge to the world-class pediatric plastic surgeons at Shriners Hospital for Children—Cincinnati. With careful consideration, the team at Cincinnati Shriners Hospital, including pediatric plastic surgeons Drs. David Billmire, Ann Schwentker, and Chris Gordon, decided that, although they had never before attempted this type of dangerous surgery, Claudia was not a child that they could turn away. They wanted to help her. Chief of Staff Dr. Petra Warner agreed.
So Claudia left the only world she knew and traveled halfway around the world to Cincinnati, Ohio. The intermediary helped her mother understand that Claudia could have a different quality of life with this surgery, and she would be safe and cared for. Cincinnati Shriners Hospital staff arranged for Claudia to stay with the Holland family during her preparation and recovery. The Hollands had hosted and eventually adopted another Shriners child, 4-year old orphaned burn patient Jing, two years earlier. They understood that a child is a child, no matter the circumstances. “We hosted Claudia because we can,” Laura Holland said.
During her stay, Claudia became friends with her young host Jing; the two became inseparable. Jing, who had been given a second chance at life by Cincinnati Shriners Hospital, let Claudia know that this was a good place, a place where they welcome all who need help.
The tumor was now growing so rapidly that it threatened to block Claudia’s airway. The surgical team, led by Drs. Schwentker and Gordon, worked for more than eight hours on the initial surgery. Claudia stayed in Cincinnati for nearly eight months to complete her treatment and begin the healing process.
As her healing progressed, Claudia was eager to go back home to her mother and siblings in the village where she was once scorned. And because the brave, talented, and compassionate team at Cincinnati Shriners Hospital was willing to take a risk when no other would, Claudia can now go as far in life as she chooses.