Young Ugandan orphan treated at L.A. burn center

Dr. Peter Grossman, left, shakes hands with Adolf Baguma, 11, of Uganda, as Adolf's guardian, Eva Mbabazi, watches.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Adolf Baguma’s caretakers at the orphanage call him their Christmas gift, because it was on Christmas two years ago when they found the 9-year-old in the bushes behind a building in a small Ugandan town.

Like many Ugandan children, Baguma was orphaned when AIDS claimed his parents. But he had an extra burden to bear. When he was about 5, the teenage aunt left to care for him got angry and hit him in the back of the legs with flaming banana leaves.

Scar tissue from the burns fused each of his legs into a permanently bent position so that he was unable to walk upright.


Townspeople said the young beggar was a “bad boy,” whose aunt had abandoned him and left him to fend for himself. But the Home Again Children’s Home in Kyenjojo took him in.

Soon, he was accompanying the other children to school, crawling on all fours down the road.

Despite his disability, he was a cheerful little boy, always playing and laughing, said Eva Mbabazi, 32, one of his caretakers at the orphanage.

“God gave him that gift,” she said.

Baguma, now 11, got another gift this year, just in time for Christmas. Well-wishers from the United States brought him to the Grossman Burn Center in Los Angeles. After two surgeries, Baguma’s legs are straight, and he is able to walk unassisted for the first time in years.

The boy’s journey began in June, when Los Angeles attorney Laine Wagenseller traveled on a mission to Uganda and met him while volunteering at the orphanage.

Wagenseller reached out to the Children’s Burn Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that provides services for young burn victims. Every year, the organization pays for full recovery services — including surgeries, physical therapy and other follow-up care — for about 200 children, according to Executive Director Carol Horvitz.

The group arranged for his visa and trip to Los Angeles.

Since he arrived last month, he has undergone two surgeries — one to release the scar tissue and stretch his compressed muscles and tendons to their full length, and a second to place a skin graft on his legs. A few days before Christmas, the boy stood and took his first steps upright, smiling from ear to ear, said Peter Grossman, medical director at the burn center.

Although the procedure was complicated, Grossman said the medical team was confident from the beginning that it could be performed successfully. But the price tag is far beyond what most Ugandans could afford. Horvitz estimated that Baguma’s treatment will cost more than $50,000.

The boy still has a splint on each leg to keep them straight, and a walker that he avoids using. Grossman said it may take months of physical therapy and corrective splinting before Baguma’s recovery is complete.

But, he said: “Kids tend to always surprise us with their rapid progress.”

Baguma returned to the burn center Wednesday for doctors to check on how the grafts are healing. He also took several confident steps for TV cameras. For Grossman, he reserved a special hug and a series of high fives and fist bumps.

Baguma is staying with Wagenseller’s brother and sister-in-law in Thousand Oaks while he recovers, playing with their four children and going to school at Westlake Hills Elementary School. Horvitz said some people had inquired about adopting the boy, but it’s not yet clear whether he will be able to stay in the United States or will return to Uganda.

Baguma, who speaks little English, said only that he felt “good” and that when he recovers fully, “I want to play baseball.”

Mbabazi, who accompanied him to Los Angeles, was more eloquent: “I’m seeing him walking with joy in my heart.”