Kenyan youth receive specialized treatment in Triple Cities
By luke eggleston
Sun staff writer
“Jambo,” Consolata Chebet sings.
“Jambo” means “hello” in Swahili and it punctuates the chorus of a Kenyan marketing song designed to welcome tourists to the East African country.
In October, the city of Binghamton, the staff at Danielle House and parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Vestal said “jambo” to Chebet. Through the efforts of a network of Catholics and medical professionals from Kenya and the Southern Tier, the 16-year-old Chebet was given an opportunity to receive care that substantially improved her quality of life. Chebet was born with a severe birth defect: an especially pronounced facial cleft.
When she was born, Chebet’s face was split from forehead to chin. Only the efforts of a nearby medical facility in Nairobi saved her life. But there was only so much that facility could accomplish.
In 2006, Our Lady of Sorrows parishioners David and Florence Niermeyer traveled to Kenya as they do every year. David Niermeyer is affiliated with Boystown Africa at Rui, an orphanage that houses over 140 children near Nairobi. Niermeyer is the primary fund raiser for the orphanage.
While they were in Kenya, Father Laurence Mbogo, who had been an associate pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows for six years, introduced the Niermeyers to Chebet and her father, Eric Ngetuny.
Chebet’s condition was so severe she was unable to wear eyeglasses or a hearing aid, despite having severely hampered vision and hearing.
When they returned to the Southern Tier, the Niermeyers told their close friend, plastic surgeon Dr. Lawrence Kerr, about Chebet. The doctor was familiar with severe facial clefts and was immediately intrigued by her case. The Niermeyers began looking for a way to bring Chebet to Binghamton for treatment. He also cited the generous spirit of the Niermeyers as a motivation for his interest in Chebet’s particular case.
“Mr. and Mrs. Niermeyer have given greatly, quietly, and magnanimously to our local community, to our hospital, and to their project in Kenya,” Kerr said. “When they saw a child in need, they asked for help for her, and I hoped that I could help and follow their example to the best of my ability. There are not very many craniofacial surgeons around the world and most, if not all, would have done the same thing. We haven been give a lot and should share what we can.”
The couple credits Father Mbogo as the main catalyst for bringing Chebet to the U.S. After obtaining passports and airplane tickets for both Chebet and her father, they finally arrived in the U.S. Oct. 24, 2007.
Ngetuny said Binghamton was ideal because he had friends studying at Binghamton University who could help him and his daughter with the language. Although Ngetuny speaks excellent English, having the Kenyan BU students translate smoothed out the rougher areas of communication.
As soon as Ngetuny and Chebet arrived, the students treated them to a traditional Kenyan meal.
Both Chebet and Ngetuny were welcomed to Danielle House, which provides a home for families with loved ones receiving care at any of the medical facilities in the Triple Cities.
While she was receiving care from Dr. Kerr and a team of surgeons, Chebet attended Our Lady of Sorrows with her father and also religious education classes at the parish. Prior to Chebet’s surgery, the religious education class presented her with a gift basket.
She also had an opportunity to study English at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Binghamton.
“They’re good children,” Chebet said. “They were very nice to me.”
A team of 19 medical professionals, including four surgeons and one neurosurgeon, spent over 10 hours working to restore Chebet’s damaged face Nov. 14 at Binghamton General Hospital. In addition to repairs to her nose and face, the neurosurgeon had to be on hand because of a hole in Chebet’s skull.
At the end of the procedure, the improvement was very apparent, according to the Niermeyers, but an infection following the operation forced her to remain in the hospital under supervision for five weeks.
While at Binghamton General, Chebet was helped by several different neurosurgeons; plastic surgeons; eye doctors, ear, nose and throat specialists; and audiology specialists. Audiologists study hearing and balance and the relationship between them.
According to Ngetuny, Chebet has responded positively to the care she received in Binghamton.
“The way she is now, she is enjoying it,” he said.
Parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows raised funds to help continue her medical care in Kenya. Although they enjoyed their time in the Southern Tier, both Chebet and Ngetuny are anxious to return to Kenya’s warmer climate. During his interview with The Catholic SUN, Ngetuny wore a winter coat inside Danielle House.
Ngetuny said that although his daughter’s condition has made life hard, she remains undaunted.
“She is very courageous,” he said.
Last week, after many months in the Southern Tier, Chebet was finally able to sing “Jambo” in her homeland of Kenya.