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July 2 - July 8, 2009
Saving face
Women team up to help boy from Mali with life-threatening facial tumor
by Ann Spivak

Traveling on medical missions for more than a decade, Abigail Hayo and surgeon Tammy Neblock-Beirne thought they had seen it all when it came to indigent children.

Then one day last year, 7-year-old Boi Doumbia walked into their clinic in the African nation of Mali.

Boi was struggling to breathe. His face was barely identifiable, taken over by a giant tumor that ballooned and stretched across one side. His jaw was dislocated, and the few teeth he had seemed to dangle down by his neck.

“We were in shock,” said Hayo, a volunteer with the locally based Medical Missions Foundation. “Boi was crying, and then we all started crying.”

That day, in that clinic, the two women decided to use every bit of muscle and influence they could muster to save a little boy’s life.

“He didn’t have much time,” Hayo said. “His airway would be blocked soon, and there was really little we could do for him in Mali.”

Two days after meeting Boi at the clinic, Hayo and Neblock-Beirne flew back to Kansas City on a mission to save him.

First they contacted U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore to help get Boi an emergency visa to the United States.

And when Neblock-Beirne got back to work, she shoved a picture of Boi’s face in front of a fellow surgeon, Chris Larsen, as he operated on a patient.

“We have to help this boy,” she said.

Larsen, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, assembled a team of experts in neck and head and reconstructive surgery, neurology, radiology, pediatrics and pathology. They all began to clear their schedules as quickly as they could to donate their time.

One doctor on the team, Ossama Tawfik, said the tumor was so rare “a pathologist might only read about it in textbooks and might go through their entire career without seeing one.”

Meanwhile, the two women started calling everyone they knew, asking for money.

“We broke all the rules,” Hayo said. “We didn’t fill out paperwork. We just spent hours and hours calling in every favor we could think of and finding the deepest pockets we could think of. We went straight to the top.”

They sent an e-mail to gather supporters. It showed a picture of Boi with a tear running down his face. The text: “You’re in, right?”

Money streamed in from several sources, including the Medical Missions Foundation, First Hand Foundation and the Overland Park Rotary Club.

All the while, the two women were worried that time was running out for Boi. It took three months to get everything organized, and Boi and his father, Zina, arrived in Kansas City on April 10, 2008.

Removing the large, non-cancerous tumor was complicated, and so was reconstructing Boi’s face with bone grafts from his fibula and skull, and tissue grafts from his upper thigh.

The medical team’s members were concerned that they were taking on a project larger than any of them had seen or tackled before, despite 50 years of collective experience.

“I initially received blank looks of disbelief,” surgeon Douglas Girod later wrote. “We quickly regrouped and prepared for what proved to be the longest and most difficult surgical procedure of my 20-plus years in the field. I have never been so tired and yet so elated as I felt at the end of that first procedure.”

Hayo kept a daily blog throughout the surgeries.

After one particularly tough night in the hospital, she wrote, “The sparkle in his eyes is back!” and “He says that he is not having any pain.”

In all Boi (pronounced boo-wah) was wheeled into surgery for four procedures, a total of 45 hours under the knife over the course of five months at KU Medical Center.

It pained the two women to think that if Boi had gotten to a good doctor when he was a toddler, when the tumor was just the size of a pea, it could have been removed by a simple procedure.

Boi’s father returned to Mali last spring to tend to crops. And on the Fourth of July weekend, Hayo and Neblock-Beirne traveled back to Mali with Boi, taking a healthy and happy child home to his family.

When it was time for them to leave the village of Daganbougou, the two area women stood alone on a dirt road and cried.

“It was awful,” Hayo said. “Our hearts were breaking. We knew we did everything right, but we loved him so much and it just killed us to leave.”

Earlier this year, missing Boi, Hayo and Neblock-Beirne went back to Daganbougoug. Boi spent a week with them as they traveled the countryside continuing to help others with medical care.

Today, the hardest part of Boi’s journey is over.

He’s back in Kansas City for the summer, living at Hayo’s house, and is scheduled to have another surgery in which part of his rib will be used to anchor dentures that will become his upper teeth.

And last week, Boi was at a West Bottoms art gallery with his friends and his “two new grandmas” to sign copies of a book, “Boi’s Story,” which Hayo wrote to raise money for health care and to build a middle school in Daganbougou.

“We saved Boi, but what’s going to happen to him and the other children in his village?” Hayo said. “The school only goes to the second grade, and two of Boi’s siblings have died of dysentery. What they really need is good hygiene and drinking water that isn’t contaminated. How could we help? That’s when I got the idea for the book. Every penny will go to help these children.”

Neblock-Beirne said it’s not difficult to look at pictures in the book of Boi’s tumor because behind it are two big eyes that shine with happiness and personality.

“He’s a special kid, and it’s really an honor to know him,” Neblock-Beirne said. “And every single person who’s met him says the same thing.”

Boi is an adventuresome, bossy little boy (his grandfather is chief of the village) who likes to wake up around 7 a.m., heat a hotdog in the microwave and then watch cartoons, Hayo said. Then an hour or so later, he routinely knocks on Hayo’s door and the doors of her two teenage sons, Michael and Edward, to wake everyone.

He loves to swim and eat hamburgers.

Although Boi understands English when it is spoken to him, he isn’t conversational, Hayo said. His favorite words and phrases include “Oh, my gosh,” “cheeseburger” and “bike.” He rubs his belly to let her know he’s hungry.

Hayo said, “We say ‘I love you’ all the time. He says, ‘I love you, Abby,’ and I say ‘I love you, Boi,’ and he says ‘I love you, Tammy’ and Tammy says ‘I love you, Boi.’ “

Hayo and Neblock-Beirne expect they will spend the rest of their lives helping Boi and his village. They have big dreams for Boi as he grows into a young man, and they worry about his health and safety as they lie awake at night.

“Tammy and I joke around that we are his grandmas and we fatten him up and spoil him rotten,” Hayo said. “Then we take him home.”
— The Kansas City Star/MCT

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