Peruvian boy gets new face thanks to many
By Airman 1st Class Matthew Cook, Task Force New Horizons Public Affairs
/ Published August 10, 2008
AYACUCHO, Peru -- Ayacucho is a region deep in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Volunteers from all over the world travel here to assist with the medical needs these impoverished people might have. But rarely do so many people come together for the aid of one boy.
Shannon Curry Westgaard, a clinical psychology doctoral student from Newport Beach, Calif., is one of those volunteers. Ms. Westgaard, a member of the Peruvian American Medical Society (PAMS), recently travelled with the group to Ayacucho for a two-week medical mission at a local hospital. There she met Juan Carbajal, a 17-year-old local of Quinua, a small village in Ayacucho.
Juan came to the hospital seeking medical assistance - reconstructive surgery for his face.
At the age of 14, Juan was at a carnival when he was assaulted by a stranger. The stranger knocked Juan unconscious and his head fell into a generator powering the carnival rides. He suffered from severe trauma from the generator blades and electrical fire. After six month fighting for his life, he eventually received a skin graft over the entire right side of his face, covering his eye. Juan never received any further surgery, and unfortunately, all the medical team could offer was psychological therapy.
"While Juan was grateful to be seen by the PAMS physicians, Raquel asked that he be seen for a brief therapy session suspecting that after a year of waiting for the PAMS doctors to arrive, the news that we could not help him was more disappointing than Juan let on," said Ms. Westgaard. "I was touched by Juan's gentle manner and positivity despite his significant hardship."
Juan was very quiet during therapy, but Raquel revealed to Ms. Westgaard that Juan had not been to school in three years since his accident because he is ashamed to be seen.
"When I returned to the U.S., I found I could not stop thinking about Juan," said Ms. Westgaard. "I saw his face when I tried to sleep and I imagined him home in Quinua, ashamed to be seen by the outside world."
Ms. Westgaard contacted fellow PAMS physicians and decided to get Juan help.
"We had two equally daunting tasks, the first, was to find Juan in the Andes of Peru with no records of his address. All we had was his name written on my case notes from our therapy session," said Ms. Westgaard. "The second task was to find an organization in the U.S. willing to sponsor Juan's long-term medical care which we knew would consist of multiple reconstructive surgeries and long recoveries."
Shriners of North America agreed to sponsor Juan for free medical care in California, but with one stipulation - Shrines only sponsors children under the age of 18. This severely narrowed the time for the completing the next task - finding nearly-18-year-old Juan.
"The hospital in Ayacucho had no record of Juan, so there were times when it seemed we were helpless to find him," said Ms. Westgaard. "However, in early July, I received a Google alert that the Air Force was running a medical mission similar to our own in Ayacucho."
That same night before she went to bed, she sent an email to 1st Lt. Mary Pekas, a public affairs officer in Ayacucho for New Horizons - Peru 2008.
"The timing couldn't be more perfect," said Lieutenant Pekas. "In Shannon's e-mail, she said Juan lived in Quinua, and it just so happened that Senior Master Sgt. (Teresa) Denton-Price, our (medical readiness training exercise) liaison, was headed to Quinua the following day. I immediately forwarded her the photos and e-mails."
The next day Sergeant Denton-Price was able to track down Juan and get contact information from him and his nurse, Raquel. Upon return to base camp, Sergeant Denton-Price immediately emailed Ms. Westgaard to tell her the great news.
"We talked to the police and the mayor who put us in contact with a nurse from the town clinic," said Sergeant Denton-Price. "This nurse was familiar with Juan's case and provided us with contact information which I was able to pass on to Shannon and Lieutenant Pekas. I felt an immense happiness; it was a great feeling."
With the two biggest tasks completed, everything seemed to fall into place in the effort to help Juan. David Rugendorf, an attorney with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP in Los Angeles, heard about Juan's story through a friend of Ms. Westgaard. He volunteered his time and advice to help with the visa process. In addition, Peggy Jocelyn of the 12K foundation donated funds for Juan and Raquel's trip to Lima for visa appointments.
Juan and Raquel were both granted their visas Aug. 1 and Ms. Westgaard was more than grateful for everyone's help.
In an e-mail to all of the people who came together to help Juan, including Task Force New Horizons members, Ms. Westgaard said "I thank you all so much for your time, hard work and incredible support!"
Juan and Raquel will arrive in California, Aug. 27, and Juan will have his first appointment the following day. He is expected to have his eyelid and ear reconstructed, and if his eye is no longer viable, he will receive a prosthetic one. He will have his hairline and scalp along with the entire right side of his face reconstructed as well. During his recovery, he will live with Ms. Westgaard and her husband Justin.
For Juan, this will be a long journey. But his journey would not have been made possible without the work and compassion of so many people linked by one theme - the will to help those in need.