Before I met Leo, I helped another young man named Freddy from 2011 to 2013. Several years earlier, as a 6 or 7 year old, Freddy had suffered an epileptic seizure and landed in an open cooking fire like Leo. He laid in the flames until his grandmother smelled something burning, came inside, and screamed for help. The fire melted away much of Freddy’s face, removing the distinction between his head and neck. His lips and mouth disappeared, leaving his teeth exposed.
In the years afterward, he was rejected as an outcast — possessed by demons, some said. A Canadian missionary who saw him begging arranged treatment by a Russian doctor in Rwanda, who worked on Freddy for five months.
"In the years afterward, he was rejected as an outcast."
I met Freddy through Youth For Christ where I was a volunteer. After being introduced to Freddy, I was asked to be his caregiver while he was getting his treatments to Kenya. I first said I would think about it because I was scared. I went home to talk and pray with my family. The answer came to me quickly. I would do it. When I met Freddy in person, I was afraid and asked myself: “Why did I accept to do this?” As we got to know each other, my reservations faded away and we became close friends. I traveled with Freddy to Kenya 3 times for his plastic surgeries. I had to clean saliva from the scarf that Freddy used to cover his face. I slept next to him on the bed, to better care for him. All the while, I tried to build Freddy’s faith in God. I helped Freddy over the course of nearly all of my college career from 2011 to 2013. I missed classes a couple times.
Working with Freddy was a purely volunteer role — I was not paid beyond travel and living expenses. I treated it like a rolling internship, a chance to practice counseling. Freddy was embarrassed at his appearance. He didn’t want anyone to look at him. I encouraged him to feel proud of who he was. “You look nice,” I would say. “Don’t hide yourself.” Today, Freddy, now in his late 30s, no longer covers his mouth. His life has improved a lot. He was able to catch up on his studies after missing many years of school, wanted to be a medical professional, and yearned to train outside of Burundi. He hopes to help others like he was helped.
I encouraged him to feel proud of who he was. “You look nice,” I would say. “Don’t hide yourself.”
He suffered constant pain in the area around his jaw, however his indomitable spirit was simply inspiring. The surgeon who worked on his mouth in 2011, temporarily inserted metal to sustain the sides of his jaws. The metal was supposed to be removed after 5 years, but because there were no more funds it wasn’t removed. Then, in 2017 the metal started cutting his tongue. Freddy was in so much pain. I often talked to him on the phone, and he would cry because of pain and ask for help. I also cried because of compassion. He was taking a lot of antibiotics to reduce pain, which was not good. He should have been taking painkillers instead.
That’s when I reached out to friends to help him. I contacted the same Kenyan doctor, Nthumba, who did the previous operations. He urged him to come back to Kenya so that the metal could be removed. “It is an emergency for this metal to be removed,” the doctor emphasized.
On January 8th, 2019, Freddy was able to receive the treatments he needed. The surgery went so well. The surgeon finally removed the mandibular plate and worked on his low eye. Freddy did well and was happy with these treatments. A couple days later, he was discharged and went back home. He is doing much better now. Freddy was so grateful that I continued supporting him and kept thanking over and over on WhatsApp. But I don’t like to receive praise when I do what I must do. Freddy graduated from high school in his late twenties. He got married and had one baby. Recently, Freddy reached out to me that he wants to go to university to study Public Health. Hopefully, one day he would.