Atsede Gashaw is 13 years old. But because of a bout with rheumatic fever that left her heart severely weakened when she was a little girl, she looks to be no more than six. Now, thanks to a local charitable foundation, the generosity of a Malibu family and an elite surgical team from Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, Atsede will see her 14th birthday and live a fairly normal life when she returns to her native Ethiopia.
Mending Kids International was launched in Spokane, Wash. 30 years ago by founder Cris Embleton and her husband after they adopted a little girl from South Korea who had been blinded by an eye infection.
“The doctor told us then that if she had been given five dollars worth of medicine at the onset of infection, they could have saved her eye,” Embleton said. “Ultimately, the infection spread to her brain and she died three months after we got her.”
Embleton opened a California branch of MKI after receiving a generous donation to be distributed between three Los Angeles hospitals-Childrens, UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center-and the commitment of doctors like Malibu cardiac surgeon, Dr. Alfredo Trento.
Trento and his team spend several weeks a year traveling to the poorest countries in the world, treating seriously ill children there for free and bringing back to California those that require hospital procedures unavailable in those countries. Working purely with private donations and the cooperation of local families who host the sick children (who usually don’t speak English), MKI has provided more than 1,000 youngsters with life-saving surgeries, from heart valve replacement to separation of conjoined twins.
“Last year, we spent less than $60,000 to treat 83 kids who came to California for treatment,” Embleton said. “The hospitals and surgical teams donate their skill and facilities and local people provide housing and airfare. Even so, we don’t begin to treat all the kids who need help.”
Malibu residents Lori and John Armstrong decided to open their doors to Atsede this summer, who arrived in mid-September, looking like a Lilliputian amongst giants next to the two Armstrong daughters, Daisy, 10, and Amellia, 12.
“Some friends had a fundraiser and were hosting another sick child and we just said immediately we would help,” Lori Armstrong said. “When I knew Atsede was coming, I called an Ethiopian market to find out what kind of food would be good to have around and met a woman who agreed to act as translator for us.”
Atsede arrived alone (her mother, who suffers from tuberculosis, was unable to travel) speaking only Amharic, unable to read since she had never attended school, never having traveled on an airplane, never having seen a movie or television, since there is no electricity in her grass-thatched hut, and desperately ill.
But she was warmly welcomed by the Armstrongs and swept into a blond, blue-eyed sisterhood that relied on hugs and enthusiastic pantomime to communicate. Atsede saw the ocean for the first time when she visited the La Costa Beach Club with the Armstrongs and was delighted by dolphins playing in the surf.
Her surgery on Oct. 13 by Dr. Winn Wells was successful and the Armstrongs spend several hours a day with Atsede at the hospital while she recovers. Daisy and Amellia are protective of their new “little” sister.
“Atsede will have to take medicine the rest of her life,” Amellia Armstrong said in Atsede’s hospital room decorated with balloons and stuffed bears. “In India, you can buy it [the medicine] for only $700. But here, it costs $7,000.”
The surgeon who brought Atsede here, Dr. Rick Hoades, has pledged to supply this medication.
“Atsede doesn’t like the food here,” Daisy Armstrong chimed in. “So Mom got some Ethiopian food.”
When Atsede woke up from a nap at the hospital, she was greeted with giggles and hugs. Through a translator on a speaker phone, she said she was “very excited and very happy to come to California.”
When asked what she has enjoyed the most about being here, her eyes lit up.
“The dolphins! I’ve never seen anything like it,” Atsede said. “And the dinosaurs [at the recent Walking with Dinosaurs exhibit at Staples Center]. I loved them.”
Atsede said she doesn’t feel as tired as she use to and that she wants to go to school here in America. She turned her palms upward to show healthy pink skin, something her poor blood flow had never permitted before.
Embleton said Malibu has been particularly hospitable in finding host families and funds for the children MKI helps.
“But there is always a demand,” Embleton said. “Right now, we have five kids that need immediate treatment, before Christmas, or the windows of opportunity from the surgeons and the hospitals will be closed. We do what we can.”
More information about Mending Kids International can be obtained by visiting the Web site www.mendingkids.org