How one e-mail changed a little boy's life
It was a short e-mail -- a few simple lines. It appeared in my inbox on May 12, 2011. It had been forwarded several times until it found its way to me.
"I saw a story on CNN a few days ago and can't seem to get it out of my head," wrote American businessman Aram Kovach. "I want to somehow help this little boy."
He was referring to a Freedom Project report that aired on CNN a few days earlier. The story, filed by Senior International Correspondent Sara Sidner, was about a 7-year-old boy from Bangladesh who had been savagely attacked and mutilated by a gang that routinely kidnapped poor children and forced them into the streets of the capital, Dhaka, to beg for money, which they would then keep for themselves.
When they snatched this little boy, he fought back. It almost cost him his life
As Kovach watched from his comfortable home in Columbus, Ohio, something about the story moved him so much that he got up off his sofa and sent an e-mail that would change his life -- and the boy's future.
The first time we spoke, Kovach was very clear that he did not want to write a check to a charity. He wanted to help this boy directly. "Perhaps I could hire a tutor for him so he can be educated," he said. "I want to know what this boy needs most."
I asked Kovach how much money he was willing to spend.
"Whatever it takes," he told me.
And so began a journey that changed how I view my role as a journalist, and forced me to think about the different levels of compassion that we, as human beings, all have within us.
I started making calls to Bangladesh to find an answer to Kovach's question. What does this boy need most? The answer was more elusive than I expected. There were so many obstacles.
The boy and his family live in witness protection.
They speak no English.
I speak no Bengali.
It took eight months before I finally got an answer. What the boy needed most is surgery to rebuild his penis, which the gang had cut off in the attack. Doctors in Bangladesh can't help him, he needs to go to the United States or Australia, I was told.
I called Kovach to give him the news and asked him again how much money he was willing to donate. Surgery like this is expensive. The boy and his family have no money. Could Kovach bear this burden?
"Don't worry about money," he told me. "Whatever it takes, I'll make it work."
My next call was to my brother, a urologist in Florida. "I need to see pictures," he told me. "I can't tell you if we can help the boy without seeing the extent of the injury."
Another month passed before I received photos from Bangladesh and forwarded them to my brother. After looking at them, he explained that the boy needed more than just a urologist. He needed a team of specialists, and the surgery would have to take place in a large hospital with more resources available than where he operates.
Back at square one, I started to do some research online and kept coming up with the same name: Dr. John Gearhart, Director of Pediatric Urology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
So I called him. I shared the boy's story. I sent the photos. Dr. Gearhart didn't hesitate. Not only would he take the case, he said he'd do it for free.
And that's not all. He even agreed to take a call with doctors in Bangladesh at a specific time, dictated by them.
Nine o'clock in the evening, on a Friday, while Dr. Gearhart was on vacation in Jamaica.
The call was very important. The boy needed support from the doctors in Bangladesh in order to get court approval to travel to the U.S. for surgery.
I will never forget making that call. On my Blackberry, I dialed Dr. Gearhart in Jamaica and conferenced in the doctors in Bangladesh. Then I muted my phone and listened, with tears in my eyes, as Dr. Gearhart spoke to seven doctors, one at a time, repeating over and over, "Yes, we can help this boy. This is an operation we do all the time. We will improve his quality of life."
That call was on February 17, 2012 and things moved quickly after that.
The surgery was scheduled for August 16 and Dr. Gearhart drafted two more specialists who also agreed to operate for free: plastic surgeon, Dr. Rick Redett and general surgeon, Dr. Dylan Stewart.
I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to meet with Kovach and his wife, Branka.
I also traveled to Baltimore to meet with the public relations officials at Johns Hopkins and to find a home near the hospital where the boy and his family could stay.
I then went to Washington to meet with officials from the International Organization for Migration, who agreed to help the boy prepare for the journey.
But nothing could prepare me for what it would be like to meet the little boy in person, what it would be like to get to know him.
I was at the airport, waiting for them, the day the boy and his father arrived in the U.S.
I was in the operating room at Johns Hopkins on August 16, when the boy had his surgery.
And I was the first person to hold his hand in the recovery room, before his father was brought back to see him.
As the mother of two boys close to his age it was impossible for me not to think, what if this happened to one of my sons?
There were times when I felt like more of a humanitarian than a journalist. As a journalist, I'm required to be objective. To remain detached, to avoid becoming emotionally involved. But as a human being, how is that possible? In my 25-year career, I had never come so close to that line.
With the surgery now over and the boy safely back home in Bangladesh, I've had time to reflect on the events of the past year and a half.
One question gnaws at me.
With so many stories about people in need, what was it about this little boy's story that pushed Kovach to act?
He can't tell me exactly. As a writer and producer, I wish I knew.
I wish every story moved just one person to take a stand and make a difference in someone's life.
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