Moving Mountains to Save a Baby’s Life

Posted on 02/14/2012

By HEATHER BORDEN HERVE

The power of one CT woman sets off a chain reaction from Africa to Boston, mobilizing many others in the race to help an 11-month-old little girl.

This is a story of luck, and this is a story of heart. This is a story of a little girl in Africa, not yet one year old, who has suffered so much already in her short life. This is the story of one woman on the other side of the world, who set off a chain reaction that moved a mountain to help that little girl. This is the story of the angels here on earth who came together—with the help of coincidence, serendipity and sheer will—to do pure good.

An email heard ’round the world

In a million years, documentary filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris never imagined she’d be waiting at airport arrivals at Logan Airport in Boston for a little girl from the Congo, Africa. But just two weeks after receiving an email plea for help, that’s exactly where she was.

Smith-Harris had produced “Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged,” a documentary on burn survivors and the extraordinary challenges they face after being burned by fire. The film has a Facebook page and website, so people often contact her with legitimate—and on occasion not-so legitimate—requests for help.

At home in Wilton, CT on Sunday, January 22, Smith-Harris got one such request. She received an email from a woman in Africa, asking for help for a badly burned child there in urgent need of care. The email was from someone affiliated with Children of Fire, an organization for burn victims based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The baby, a little girl named Agnes who was not yet a year old, had been severely burned. Her face was badly injured, and doctors in Africa already had been forced to amputate her right arm because the burns there had been so extreme. Now, Children of Fire was trying desperately to find someone, anyone who could help save the child’s life. As luck would have it, with a simple search of the Internet, they found Smith-Harris.

“I asked for more information, and Mitah Lebaka, the woman with Children of Fire, and a burn survivor herself, sent me before and after pictures of Agnes,” Smith-Harris recalled. “I was familiar with the organization and I knew they were legitimate. So I emailed [my contact] at Shriners Hospital that night and asked, ‘Can you help this child?’ and I was amazed—she wrote back at 11:18 p.m., on a Sunday night, and said, ‘Of course we will help this child. If you can get her here, we will help her.’ ”

Smith-Harris was now in it, deep. “I had to help. Who wouldn’t?”

Getting Agnes here

She started by calling contacts she had made for “Trial by Fire,” including those in the firefighting community, and quickly connected with Sen. John Kerry’s Massachusetts office to get the ball rolling with visas and permission for Agnes to enter the country. But the next hurdle was how to pay for the airfare to get Agnes here?

Smith-Harris asked her Wilton book club for advice. Immediately, two of her friends offered to pay for the plane tickets—one for Agnes and one for Lebaka to accompany her. Another friend offered toys and clothes, and still others helped chip in. “It just unfolded from there.”

The wheels of good started to turn faster. Smith-Harris put it into high gear in the United States, firming up travel arrangements. In Africa, Lebaka traveled 2,500 miles from Johannesburg to Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Agnes was. Together they made their way to Kigali, Rwanda to secure visas at the U.S. embassy there. Kerry’s office had arranged for the visa office to remain open late so the paperwork would be in order for the two to catch the flights Smith-Harris had arranged.

Lebaka and Agnes left Africa on Sunday, Feb. 5—exactly two weeks after Lebaka had reached out and connected with Megan for the first time.

“It all happened really, really fast. If I had known that it was supposed to be way, way more complicated and difficult, it would have been more daunting. Sometimes it’s better not to know,” Smith-Harris said.

Flying from Rwanda to Boston, with a stop in Amsterdam, another stroke of luck was on their side. “Again, it was very fortuitous,” she recalled. “There was a doctor on the flight, Dr. Patrick Newman, with Partners in Health, who happened to be taking the same flights, so he was able to go with them and help, a lot.”

Once Agnes and Lebaka landed in Boston, even more coordination kicked in with a great deal of compassion from strangers, according to Smith-Harris.

“They were allowed off the plane first, and they were escorted quickly through customs by border patrol guards,” the Connecticut resident said. “The Delta airlines crew couldn’t have been nicer—they were all fussing over Agnes and they’ve since called to see if there’s anything more they can do, even now. And Black Tie Limo in Boston, as soon as I told them why I was calling, they offered to pick us up at the airport for free.”

For the first time, Smith-Harris got to meet Agnes and Lebaka, face to face. “I was nervous and excited, I didn’t know if it was appropriate for me to hug Lebaka, but it was spontaneous, it was a bond between us right away. I mean we’re both on the same mission.”

But holding Agnes for the first time was very emotional. “It was just so great to hold her in my arms and say, ‘You’re safe, you’re here, and everything is going to be ok.’ It was very moving. She’s very tiny, she’s 10 pounds. She has a 23 percent burn injury—her face is burned and her scalp is burned. The doctors there [in Africa] did everything they could with limited resources, to try and save her right arm, but unfortunately she did have an amputation, back in November. The rest of her body is ok, her torso and legs and other arm, but she’s endured a lot.”

Getting Agnes care

Helping Agnes now fell to the other angels Smith-Harris had connected with—the doctors, nurses and therapists at Shriners Hospital for Children-Boston. The Boston location is a pediatric surgical care hospital, and is one of 22 Shriners philanthropic hospitals in North America. The Boston site ranks as the leading pediatric burn hospital in the entire world.

For many reasons, Shriners Hospital was the best place for Agnes to be treated. Not only is the care the best she could receive, but Shriners would guarantee her medical care until she was 23 years old—at no cost for any medical coverage and treatment.

Given the dire nature of her injuries, Agnes was facing a good deal of danger, and a lot of immediate medical care would be required to save her life.

“The doctor was going through the procedures that had to be done immediately and the risks involved,” Smith-Harris said. “I could understand it in an intellectual way, but in an emotional way it was very hard, and I was overcome. I think to reassure me he said, ‘Look, these are necessary procedures, the first step on a long road to many procedures. But if she doesn’t get these, her life would have been compromised.’”

Agnes had her first surgery on Feb. 7, just one day after arriving in the United States. Smith-Harris reports that it was a success.

Why everyone pitched in

Smith-Harris still can’t wrap her mind around what good has come from the mix of lucky coincidences and the determination of many to help Agnes. “I did get a little emotional at one point, you get overwhelmed with, ‘What if we hadn’t been able to get her here?’ And it wasn’t just me who got her here—it was we who got her here.”

She added: “It’s so random, that Children of Fire in Africa reached out to a filmmaker in a small town in Connecticut, and found someone who could help, and really found many people who could help. It’s really about the chain of events, and not just me.”

However, one of Smith-Harris’s book club friends, Ellen Lewis, said she’s determined to credit her friend as the person at the center of the effort.

“It just showed the power, compassion and tenacity of one person, how they can influence the lives of a lot around them” Lewis said. “Megan is amazing.”

What’s just as important to Smith-Harris, she said, is that other children will get help because of the connections that were made and the realization that the needs can be met, simply by what they accomplished in helping Agnes.

“That’s often the problem—you can identify a child in another country, but you can’t get them here, because the visas sometimes take up to a year,” she said. “Having Senator Kerry’s office ready, willing and able to help, it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Shriners and Senator Kerry’s office. I’m gratified that this relationship has blossomed, and hopefully we can open this up and help other children. I think that’s fantastic.”

She added: “This may be one girl’s life, but her life is important. And it may open up relationships that will save and help other lives. And how great is that? I don’t see the Kardashians or the Housewives doing that!”

John Sugden, spokesman from Shriners Hospital, said he agrees that what Smith-Harris and everyone else did will lead to something greater than most people can imagine.

“It was extraordinary. The commitment from Sen. Kerry’s office was just tremendous,” Sugden said. “His senior aide, Tristan Takos, worked very hard, and so did the embassy workers, to facilitate this very quick turnaround. I haven’t seen a turnaround that fast. Megan makes things happen, I’m very impressed with her enthusiasm and her ability to make things happen.”

In a statement issued to Patch, Kerry said people want Agnes to have the chance “at what all kids deserve.”

“Who wouldn’t help Agnes?” Kerry said.

The Massachusetts Democrat continued: “I think we did what anyone would do when you hear such a gut-wrenching story. As a father, it broke my heart, and as senator it reminded me that I’m lucky to be able to help cut through red tape, or connect some dots that make this process easier. This is why we’re here. In the Senate, you can write and pass bills and you can hold hearings and lead investigations, but far and away the things that stick with you the most are when you can help one person get the help they need and when it’s a child it’s a whole other level of emotion. Our hope is that she has a full and speedy recovery and we take comfort in knowing that Shriners is on the case. Shriners is incredible. They do this every day and they ask for nothing in return. They’re heroes. We owe Shriners and Megan a huge thank you because it wouldn’t have happened without them.”

Sugden said that other children will be helped as a result of the coordination among individuals and agencies.

“This hospital would like very much to provide services for other children, not only from abroad, but domestically as well,” he said. “We have the capacity here to care for more children. If it’s a burn injury, getting them here quickly makes a difference in the outcome; that fast turnaround is extremely important, and logistically this new relationship with the senator’s office has provided us with a wonderful level of support on that front.”

The road ahead

No one knows yet what lies ahead for Agnes on her long road of recovery. Officials at Shriners Hospital said the hospital would help her with her medical and reconstructive needs and she is their patient—she is their patient and they will take care of her as long as she needs help, no matter the cost.

“Everyone realizes that right now the focus is on right now. To look long term isn’t really effective,” Smith-Harris said. “We just have to focus on helping her get stronger every day and giving her the love, attention and support that she needs. There’s a whole team of people doing that. We’ve put together a circle of care, and there are many people willing to be arms to sing her a lullaby, read her a story. I can’t wait to see her crawl and walk. This is a new beginning for her.”

One of the burn survivors profiled in “Trial by Fire,” Calais Weber, now lives in Boston, and has bonded with Agnes as well. “She’s been there every day,” Smith-Harris said. “I have a feeling Agnes is going to be surrounded by a lot of love and attention.”

Perhaps sweetest of all, Agnes will really get to feel that love when she turns one, on March 3. “My husband is already saying, ‘We’re definitely going to Boston for her birthday!’ ” Smith-Harris laughed.

Already Agnes’ guardian angel, Smith-Harris will also act as her legal guardian while the child is in the United States. It’s clear from the start that she has wanted to do everything possible for such a vulnerable little girl, and her emotional connection is strong. “This is a life-altering event for my family as well. We’ll be making a lot of trips to Boston.”

Smith-Harris is now irretrievably linked to Agnes for the rest of this little girl’s life. “I really do hope so,” she said with a sigh. “I feel honored to be part of this journey for her, in some small way. She has some serious injuries and it’s going to take a lot of medical expertise to help her, but she’s a strong little girl. You just can tell, she has such spirit and will to survive. She’s already winning people over. She’s very special—all children are special but there’s just something about her. I look forward to getting to know her better.”

Thanks to her efforts, and the efforts of her chain of angels, Megan will definitely get that chance.

A fund has been set up for Agnes, to help cover costs not taken care of by Shriners Hospital. Donations can be made via:

Agnes W. c/o Megan S. Harris
CHASE Bank
P.O. Box 634
33 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton CT 06897