A second family for Pierre

A special report from SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center

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By Rick Stoff


It was a simple photograph that changed two families’ lives.

The face in the photo was that of a young African boy named Pierre. He might have been any other happy 11-year-old, except that cruel curves in his spine, caused by scoliosis, made it impossible for him to stand straight, or even breathe properly. The woman looking back at the photo was Karla Svoboda, a mother of four and parishioner at New City Fellowship in University City, Missouri. What Karla Svoboda saw was a boy who needed help, and she was a mother who could give it.


Leon Mukende and Barry Henning, two of Svoboda’s pastors, had just returned with the photo from a mission trip to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While they were visiting an orphanage, Pierre Ndona — who attended classes and ate meals at the facility — was brought to them in the hopes that the pastors could help him.

The boy had been orphaned at 6 months of age, possibly due to the civil wars that have torn the central African nation for nearly half a century. While living with his grandmother, he suffered a polio-like illness that left him with a severely curved spine, a short leg, and weakness on one side of his body. The curves in Pierre’s spine left him hunched over and reduced his lung capacity. His disease was progressing. In the Congo, a nation where an estimated 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and 70 percent are malnourished, there was little hope of treatment. In only a few years, the boy would likely die.

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T
he parishioners at New City Fellowship refused to let that happen. They set immediately to work, planning to bring Pierre to St. Louis even before they knew where he would stay or how they would get him the medical care he needed. Karla, along with her husband, Charles, and their four children, ages 7 to 17, offered to house Pierre during his treatment. “We knew it was going to change the whole family structure and life, and it was not going to be easy with doctors’ appointments and all that kind of stuff,” says Karla. “Charlie and I decided we could deal with it.”

For the next year, the church kept busy making arrangements and obtaining a visa for Pierre’s trip to St. Louis. Pierre’s case was taken up by Dr. Timothy Rice, a member of the medical staff of SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis. Rice approached other area medical professionals, including administrators at Glennon and SLUCare, the health center at St. Louis University, as well as Dr. Howard Place, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in spinal procedures. All agreed to provide care without charge.

Soon after Pierre’s arrival in St. Louis in February 2006, he underwent the first of two surgeries, lasting up to six hours each, to straighten his spine. He remained in traction for two weeks to gradually stretch his spinal cord, then underwent a second procedure to fuse a segment of his spine. Pierre, suddenly five and a half inches taller, remained at Glennon for a week after the operation. “He was the darling of the hospital,” Karla says. “The nurses would request him. If they didn’t get him, they would pop up on their breaks to see how he was doing.… They just love him.”

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Little by little, despite the language barrier (Pierre spoke some French but mostly Lingalese, a native dialect) the Svobodas began to learn about the boy they soon would welcome into their home.

“Pierre told me he had a dog,” Karla says, “and that the houses were made of cement blocks. He said his aunt makes fufu, big bowls of it, and sells it. Fufu is their staple food and was the bulk of his diet. I think the language has not been here for him to tell us much, but I also think he has not wanted to go back in his mind.”

Whatever feelings Pierre may have had about leaving a country that, however strife-ridden, was the only home he’d ever known, he didn’t let them interfere with getting well. While in the hospital he became restless to be active, and after leaving in May 2006, was glad to gradually be allowed to play like a boy again, with some restrictions. Late in the fall, he finally was able to ride a bicycle, a feat he did so well that the Svobodas suspected he secretly had been working on his technique.

 

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To the Svobodas, Pierre was no longer a face in a photograph. He was a flesh-and-blood boy who had become part of their family. It didn’t take long for Karla and Charles to make a decision: They wanted Pierre to be their son.

“His grandma, aunts, and uncles told him, ‘If you can stay there, stay there. Don’t come back,’” Karla says. “… We asked him, ‘Should we try to adopt you? Is that something you want?’ He said ‘Yes.’ We said, ‘Really, truly, think about this.’ He said, ‘Yes. I don’t want to go back.’”

The Svobodas initiated the paperwork to adopt Pierre as their fifth child, and hope to keep Pierre in contact with his family in Kinshasa. “Our church has a relationship with the people there,” Karla says, “so we will do what we can to stay in touch.”

Pierre’s new mom says he’s adapted well to life in St. Louis. He attends third grade in The Freedom School at his church, where he has learned English rapidly. He enjoys school activities, has made good friends, and has found that math, reading, and physical education are his favorite classes. He’s also discovered snow. “It is good to slide,” he says, recalling the experience with a broad grin.


As for getting along with his new family, Pierre seems to have eased into that just as quickly as he did riding a bike. “He gets along with our other kids like he is one of them,” Karla says. “They have their sibling rivalry times and their moments when they get
along great.”

Pierre’s trials aren’t over. Place, the orthopedic surgeon, says that Pierre “will have no mobility in most of his back” and may need more surgery as an adult. But he also expects that Pierre will lead a relatively normal life.

“Without this care,” adds Rice, “Pierre would have died in a few years.… A lot of people took a lot of simple steps to get Pierre here, yet it has made a huge difference, a miraculous difference, in his life.” CD

Adapted from Glennon Magazine (Summer and Fall 2006 issues) with permission from Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.

Rick Stoff