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Stepping in to help, lives are changed

Here’s one of those small-world stories, the kind that shrink the world down to a village and give you a little faith in the power of goodwill.

It begins in early 2008 in Zimbabwe. The country is in turmoil, a family’s electricity is out and the backup stove explodes as it’s being refueled.

Maka Chawoneka, 4 years old, screams as burned skin and flesh peel from her face and upper body. Her parents rush her to one hospital and then another, but there’s little doctors can do for her over the next month but dress the wounds, which fester into ghastly, tumor-like bulbs.

Her mother is a teacher, her father a banker, but in Zimbabwe’s sinking economy, they resort to selling chickens, fruits and vegetables, trying to raise enough to take Maka to South Africa for better treatment. They fall short, so they send a photo of Maka to her aunt and uncle, who are living temporarily in Los Angeles, and ask if they can help.

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One day at First Christian Church of Burbank, the aunt and uncle approach fellow congregant Susan Cline, knowing she’s a nurse at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, and hand her the photo of Maka.

Cline takes the photo to work, where doctors insist that Maka be brought to Los Angeles as soon as possible. They refer Cline to Mending Kids International, an L.A.-based nonprofit that last year brought 93 sick and injured children from the far corners of the world, delivering them into the hands of doctors at Childrens Hospital, UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Unfortunately for Maka, the paperwork in Zimbabwe takes months, and when she is finally cleared to come to Los Angeles in March, her aunt and uncle are abruptly transferred back to Zimbabwe by their employer. Suddenly, Maka has no host family.

That was when Cline and her husband, Michael, a marketing consultant to flower retailers, came up with an answer for this little girl they’d never met.

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“We decided to be the hosts,” Susan said in the living room of their five-bedroom house in Chatsworth. Two of their four children were grown and gone, so they had the space. “It was what you would call a no-brainer.”

Evan, her 18-year-old son, agreed.

“It was maybe a surprise,” he said of his reaction when his parents broke the news that a Zimbabwean girl, and possibly her mother, would be moving in. “But there should be more of this kind of sharing and compassion on this planet.”

Maka and her mother, Alice, arrived in March. There was the expected cultural awkwardness at first, and Maka, now 5 1/2 , missed her father and little sister back home. Lizi Cline, 15, remembers Maka asking in accented English when she would look pretty again. And at first, she was terrified about going to the hospital.

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“She saw a white coat and she cried,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hammoudeh, her reconstructive surgeon.

Maka’s injuries were extreme, said Hammoudeh. She had burns and scars on two-thirds of her face, and her upper body and arms. He operated first on one side of the face, then the other, with a third surgery on one arm.

“We used a face lift, pulled things into position,” he said. “We did a neck lift, we borrowed tissue from the back of the head and moved things around.”

Maka was tough, never complaining about the pain, and she became much friendlier as her appearance improved and her broad smile returned.

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“Now she gives me a hug,” said Hammoudeh.

Two more operations are scheduled for July, one on her arm and another on her face, and then she and her mother will be going back home.

Already, Susan Cline is having a twinge of separation anxiety. The Clines and Chawonekas quickly settled into a nice routine, with Susan taking Maka to the hospital with her each morning either to see doctors or attend the special school on the Childrens Hospital grounds. When Alice stayed behind, church members would pick her up for outings, or she’d cook dishes native to her country, filling the house with exotic scents.

“The house smells good every day,” said Susan Cline. “Alice cooks more often, and better, than I do.”

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Maka saw an ocean for the first time, racing into the surf in Ventura even though the water was frigid. She likes French fries, reading books, swimming in the backyard pool, eating popcorn and watching “SpongeBob.” Her favorite movies are “Grease” and “Hairspray,” and last week the family was packing for a trip to the Grand Canyon, with Disneyland or Yosemite next up in their travels. On Sundays, they all go to church together.

At the Cline house Wednesday, pigtailed Maka was wearing her Easter dress and fancy shoes, watching TV and then flipping through photos of herself on Lizi’s computer. She showed off her bedroom, with its colony of stuffed animals, but said she prefers sleeping in the next room over, with “my mommy.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Alice said of her arrival in March. “They’ve been very open, very comforting.”

“I can’t even quantify what I’ve learned,” said Susan Cline, who feels a sisterly bond with Alice, having discovered an unexpected commonality with a woman whose native language is Shona.

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“She’s so strong, she’s so smart,” Cline said, expressing admiration for the way in which Alice has resisted limiting herself to traditional gender roles in Zimbabwe, as well as the way she fiercely pursued help for Maka.

“I’ve also learned just how terribly easy we have it here,” Cline said, saying that in Alice’s company, she has almost felt embarrassed by how fortunate we are to have world-class medical care, sprawling homes and gleaming grocery stores filled with thousands of choices.

At Childrens Hospital, where Cline has just become manager of nursing operations in the emergency room, Hammoudeh has been moved by the evolving bond between Maka’s family and her hosts. When he was told that a burn victim from a bombing in Gaza might be one of his next patients, but hasn’t yet found an Arabic-speaking host family, Hammoudeh raised his hand, and he and his wife are now doing the paperwork.

“I speak Arabic,” said Hammoudeh, who was born in Jerusalem and said he went into pediatric reconstructive surgery because the patients are innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control.

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“Zimbabwe, the Middle East, Russia. It doesn’t matter where they’re from.”

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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