Story by: Dr. Ejike Eze, Hamilton Odunze, Chisom Nwazojie & NJ Eze
WARNING – This article features images of a burn victim. Some images may be disturbing to some readers.
The morning of August 12, 2004 started like every other morning for fourteen-year old Chinonye Omeje who prefers to be addressed as Chichi. Like every good child in her farming village near Nsukka, Chichi went about her routine chores that morning – sweeping the house, doing dishes and gathering firewood for the family dinner. She was oblivious that in a few short hours, life as she knew it would go up in flames.
That afternoon, Chichi’s father returned from fetching fodder for the goats, and went to the bathroom to take a bath. Chichi’s mother was off attending to her other daughter who recently had a baby. The family dinner was cooking on a three-stone fireplace known as ekwu in Chichi’s Igbo dialect. In a rural life where children are trained to pitch in and help their parents, the task of tending to the fireplace routinely fell on children Chichi’s age. So, even though Chichi’s older sister was responsible for the cooking, Chichi wanted to help tend to the fire and check on the food as she had done numerous times in the past.
Chichi had suffered from seizures as a child. But with the help of medication, the seizure had been controlled and deemed cured. She had not had an episode in years. But on that fateful day, the seizure returned unannounced at the precise moment Chichi bent forward to open the pot that was on the fire. Chichi fell face-first into the steaming pot, which upturned and dropped Chichi’s head into the smouldering fire. She laid there unconscious and unable to call for help while her face burned. Her sister had stepped out of the house unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding. It would be several minutes before Chichi’s father would come out of the bathroom and call out to Chichi. Hearing no response to his calls, Chichi’s father looked towards the kitchen, where, from a distance, he beheld the most frightening and gut-wrenching sight of his life. Chichi’s legs were sticking out of the fireplace while her head burned in the fire like another log of firewood. By the time Chichi’s father pulled her out, her face had completely melted into one indistinguishable pulp of charcoaled flesh. Chichi was no longer breathing.
The spine-chilling distress screams of Chichi’s father drew the neighbors to the house. Chichi was determined dead and the neighbors saw no reason to take her to the hospital, a position the distraught father was unwilling to accept. On the way to the hospital, Chichi inexplicably came back to life. Her breathing was weak and shallow but breathing it was and it gave her father some modicum of hope. Chichi’s mother, Helen, having been alerted was on her way to meet the family at the hospital.
When they arrived at the first hospital, the staff was not as optimistic as Chichi’s family and did not want to waste valuable medicine and time on a patient whose life was hanging by the thread. So, at first, Chichi was denied a hospital bed. But Helen was not having “no” for an answer. She was determined to keep Chichi at the hospital, even if it was on a bare floor in the corridors. She would use her wrapper to shield Chichi from the rain and other elements. It would be several hours before the hospital would acquise and offer Chichi a bed. Even at that, not much effort was made to offer a proper treatment as the staff did not expect Chichi to survive for long.
When hours rolled into days and Chichi did not die after one week, the hospital determined they could not continue to keep her and referred her to the orthopedic hospital in Enugu, the capital city of Chichi’s state of the same name.
At the orthopedic hospital Chichi underwent surgery to open her mouth enough for mother to feed her. To get any type of food into her system, Chichi had to be laid down on her back so that the fluid would not run down her body. It would take several surgeries before Chichi was moved to a regular ward where visitors could see her.
The situation in the regular ward was far from ideal. Chichi’s wounds were poorly bandaged and her wounds abysmally treated. Her face started to decay and smell. As the hospital continued to neglect Chichi, her mother resorted to using salt water to clean Chichi’s wounds herself and to use her wrapper to swat away the flies and rats that attempted to feast on Chichi’s rotting face.
The situation became so bad that Chichi’s mother, a woman of faith and strong will, was physically and emotionally broken to the point where she prayed that God would take Chichi’s life and end their suffering. The financial impact on the family was excruciating. With every family resource channeled towards Chichi’s treatment, her siblings could no longer stay in school for lack of school fees. Her parents could hardly afford to feed and life had become unlivable. Not even Helen’s faith was strong enough to keep them going.
If there was one person in the family whose faith never flickered, it was Chichi herself. She was determined to live. The worse her situation got, the more resolved she was to fight on. She plunged herself into prayer, singing her favorite hymns and gospel songs and leading other patients in worship. It did not matter to her that she was blind. It did matter to her that she could not sit up or that she could not move her neck. She believed in her God and it was not long before she became known as the prayer warrior of the ward. Church visitors took notice of her unwavering faith and ability to pray, and she would often be called upon to pray when visitors arrived.
It was during one of those visits from church groups that a good samaritan took notice of Chichi’s deplorable situation and, moved by compassion, decided to intervene. When Jacinta Aniagolu, a US-based good samaritan asked Chichi what she wanted God to do for her, Chichi responded that she wanted to see again. She just wanted to see again. Ms. Aniagolu was so touched by Chichi’s spirit and condition that she deployed every resource at her disposal towards helping Chichi, pulling strings to secure a visa for Chichi and her mother to receive treatment in the United States. She did not stop at that. She paid for the travel and settled the family into a Boston apartment from where Chichi would attend the Shriners Hospital for treatment.
Since arriving in Boston, Chichi has received incredible medical attention. She has had sixty-nine surgeries and counting. The doctors have been able to graft skin from all parts of her body and recreate a face for her. Her seizure is under control with medication. Chich is still blind and she has a lot more surgeries to go but America has restored some hope in the family.
In the years that Chichi and her mother have been in the United States, they have received assistance from sources too numerous to mention. But as the years have gone by and as Chichi has gotten older, the sources of assistance have dwindled. Chichi and Helen now live in a Quincy housing complex and must survive on less than $300 a month. Aside from their current financial situation, a bigger worry for Chichi is returning to Nigeria. Chichi is certain that she could not possibly survive another neglect in a Nigerian hospital. “I really would not like to go back to Nigeria where I would not have access to treatment”, she told the Nigerian Parents Magazine.
In spite of how dire Chichi’s situation appears, both Chichi and her mother remain convinced that their God is faithful and able. “There is nothing my God cannot do”, Helen says. Their extraordinary faith and tenacity have served them well up to this point. But they will need a lot more of those for the challenges that remain ahead.
A GoFundme page account has been established to help Chichi and Helen with living expenses and sundry other needs. To contribute to the fund, please visit https://gofund.me/d07f0ff4. Those wishing to send checks may make the checks out to “Chinonye Omeje Victory Fund” and forward to Helen Omeje, 10 Taffrail Road, Apt 1, Quincy, MA 02169.
The Nigerian Parents Magazine will continue to follow Chichi’s progress and provide periodic updates at www.Nigerianparents.com. We encourage our readers to check back often and to send messages of support via firstname.lastname@example.org