Two lives emerged from the ashes

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Lisa Misraje Bentley watches the boy in the No. 8 jersey as he careens across the soccer field and she marvels. His lower face a mask of scar tissue, his left arm gone at the elbow, the toes on his left foot missing, he zigzags along the green grass in defiance of his disabilities.

“Isn’t he happy?” she says. “Look at the joy coming out of him!”

Bentley knows the boy probably should not be alive. Five years ago, he was left for dead in a cornfield, his tiny body so ravaged by fire that the villagers who found him thought he looked more like a charred log than a 6-week-old baby.


Back then, Bentley was new to China. She had come begrudgingly with her four children, following her husband, John, from Washington state. Together, the couple founded a Christian orphanage for special-needs children -- those most at risk in the Chinese child welfare system, which often lacks the resources to meet the demands of the disabled.

They wanted to help the undesirables. And when Bentley first saw the abandoned baby, gasping for breath inside a hospital incubator, she knew she had found perhaps the most undesirable one of all.

What happened next would test the limits of modern medicine and put Bentley in conflict with local customs, laws, national bureaucracies and even her own family.

Who could have predicted the impact of one small life in China on a bored suburban homemaker from the Pacific Northwest?

Six years ago, Bentley sat in her four-bedroom home in Vancouver, Wash., and felt like crying. As a stay-at-home mother, she lived the good life: Her husband was a successful lawyer. She was pregnant with her fourth child. There was the minivan and the sports car. Yet she was miserable.

“I thought, ‘If this is my life, this stinks,’ ” she says.

Then came an opportunity. John always had a fascination with China, and had seen his brother start a Christian orphanage in Africa. He wanted to start one in Beijing.


Assured financial backing for one year by a Christian philanthropist, John quit his job and prepared for the journey. Suddenly, the support fell through, but John still wanted to go.

Bentley wasn’t so sure. She wanted adventure, but China was like another planet. She had no Chinese language skills, and had always had a Woody Allen-like obsession with hygiene. China was no place to take four young children.

“I thought John was insane,” she says. “But I said, ‘OK, three months.’ Then I figured I’d raise hell and we’d come back.”

The family’s first image of China didn’t help. As they landed in Beijing, Bentley’s 8-year-old daughter, Emily, looked out the plane window and remarked, “It looks like a trash can.”

The couple settled in Langfang, a rural town an hour outside Beijing, and rented a concrete-block home without heat. Bentley remained a mother on guard, listening for the rats that scampered inside the building walls. Both she and John took jobs at a foreign-run orphanage.

No matter how hard she tried to comprehend the culture, China remained mysterious. She had run-ins with local hospital staff and officials, who considered her another pushy American. Bentley didn’t fit the image of a Christian aid worker. She’s hip and outspoken, likes ‘60s clothing, and doesn’t come on strong with Bible-speak.

She didn’t connect here, and she wanted to go home.

The ghastly discovery came on a dreary March day in 2002: A badly burned baby was found in a field. A cluster of curious villagers encircled the infant as he wailed in agony.

The baby’s bright yellow jumper was soaked with blood and body fluids. Someone had carefully tucked a 10-yuan note -- less than $2 -- into his pocket.

One by one, the crowd drifted away. What could be done? The baby was sure to die. Except one old man. He saw that the infant’s head had been shaved and a bandage remained where an IV had been inserted.

A desperate mother had no doubt tried to save this child and then, in defeat, abandoned him. The old man understood why: This no longer looked like a baby. He reached down. The infant was so charred that ashes fell when he tried to lift its left arm. The little hand was blackened, clenched.

The old man gathered up the baby and rode his bike to a local government office. He left the infant on the doorstep.

The boy was rushed to a hospital, diagnosed with third-degree burns over 70% of his body. The orphanage was notified.

When Bentley arrived, she looked down inside the incubator. What she saw “grabbed me by my heart.” The baby wailed in agony as he tried to suck his badly burned thumb -- his wounds so deep Bentley could see muscle, tendon and bone.

“This child had no mom, nobody pulling for him,” she says.

Just then, Bentley recalls, the baby’s eyes flickered. He looked right at her, expectantly, as if to say, “Are you my mother?”

Then Bentley made the decision that changed everything. Ignoring conventional wisdom limiting the jurisdiction of a foreigner in a strange land, she assigned herself as the child’s advocate. Doctors discouraged her. They had never seen anyone so badly burned. No matter how much time and money she spent, they warned, this boy is dead.

Bentley named the boy Levi. She liked the sound of it. Later she learned the word means “to bind and unite.” She liked the sound of that even more.

Levi’s first surgery was a success. Doctor’s removed part of his left arm and performed numerous skin grafts. But days later, infection set in. They operated again, taking more of his left arm. There would probably be more amputations.

Bentley flinched. Levi’s scarred face and body were bad enough. She felt as though she was losing him limb by limb.

That’s when an orphanage colleague told her of an e-mail from a Boston surgeon. When told of the burned orphan, the doctor had offered to come to China. Bentley wanted more. Why not take the baby right to physicians at Boston’s Shriners Hospitals for Children, where they could use their own equipment in their own surroundings?

She began a race to accomplish something others considered foolhardy: getting a dying, undocumented Chinese baby into the United States. She hadn’t even registered Levi’s hukou, or permanent residence, with Chinese authorities.

Such documentation takes months. Bentley had days, if that. Chinese doctors were preparing for another surgery, perhaps to amputate the boy’s remaining hand. She had to act fast. With the help of orphanage staff, she began a telephone and e-mail campaign aimed at foreign charities here and government offices in China and the U.S.

With each call, she learned a little more about how things get done in China. Hardball was out. She had to use connections, or guanxi, with people who were sympathetic to the boy’s plight.

“I couldn’t go in as the pushy American, become too highly emotional,” she said. “In the U.S. that works. Go in, be the tough bitch, get what I want. That did not work here.”

Friends donated baby clothes. Strangers who encountered the boy opened their wallets. People who knew people in power offered to make calls.

“Lisa has this innocence, this naivete, about her that gets things done. People want to help her,” said Melody Zhang, associate director of an adoption agency called Children’s Hope International. “She’s not good in dealing with government. Sometimes she has no idea. But she ignored everything for this boy. She had this connection with Levi, a mother’s love as strong as it could be.”

The bureaucratic waters began to part. Levi was granted a hukou. He was issued a passport, and then a U.S. visa. Bentley’s cold calls resulted in a free flight for her and the baby.

At home, the situation was not going as well. John felt Lisa was neglecting her family. She wasn’t seeing the big picture.

The two bickered. Colleagues in the Christian community took notice and began to whisper. “It became a problem for our marriage,” John recalls. “Nannies were raising our children. We had 25 other kids at the orphanage. This was just one child.”

The tensions would eventually lead to talk of a divorce. But Bentley couldn’t stop. With $50 in her purse, she boarded a plane for Boston with a baby still bleeding fluids.

Levi approaches a stranger in his kindergarten classroom.

“I only have one arm,” the 5-year-old says cheerfully. “Will you tie my shoes?” He points to his left foot. “This one doesn’t have any toes.”

So far, he has endured more than 20 surgeries, with more to come. As he grows, scar tissue rips and bleeds and must be removed. His left ankle remains bent at an odd angle. Sometimes, children taunt him, holding out a crooked arm, saying, “I’m Levi!” Some don’t want to sit next to him. People stare.

But he perseveres with the help of his mother’s discipline. She treats him just as she does her biological children or his fellow adopted sibling, a Chinese-born girl named Orly, who’s 9. When he falls, he gets up by himself.

Slowly, this rambunctious boy is developing a sense of self. He likes dinosaurs and singing his own rap lyrics. A recent self-image shows him as he is: a boy with a missing hand and toes. He even drew the scars.

There are setbacks. In Texas for surgery to create fingers on his right hand, Levi told the doctors he was a big boy and wouldn’t cry. His mother had warned him the surgery would not produce perfect fingers, but she knew he hoped it would.

“When they removed the bandages, they were raw and stubby, not like mine,” she says. “I saw his eyes. I knew his heart shrunk.”

She knows his most difficult days, emotionally, are yet to come, “when he falls in love and physicality becomes an issue.” It is pain even a vigilant mother cannot prevent. And today Bentley is emotionally and legally his mother. Levi was officially adopted in 2006.

Lisa and John worked on their marriage, taking a year’s leave of absence to return to the U.S. for couple’s therapy.

Not long ago, they faced a dilemma: If they didn’t return to the U.S. immediately, the Bentleys risked losing their home and cars to repossession. They stayed put. China was home now, and their work with orphans was too important to abandon.

Now, life in the U.S. suburbs seems like the other planet. They run their own Beijing-area foster home, Harmony Family House, with a deaf school to help poor Chinese mothers cope with raising special-needs children. Bentley calls these mothers heroes.

The circumstances behind Levi’s injuries remain a mystery. But Bentley doesn’t blame the mother. “I believe it was a terrible accident that befell a poor mother without resources,” she says.

She produces a tiny yellow bootie, part of the outfit she calls Levi’s burial clothes. “How can you condemn her? She did what she could for her baby. Then wrapped him up and left him to die peacefully. Imagine how hard that must have been.”

For years, Bentley was hard on herself, thinking she was never good enough. That’s changed. At 43, she accepts who she is, the kind of kooky redhead who dares to be different, who knows it’s all right to stand out either within the Christian community, back home in the U.S. or even here in China.

“I’m no longer afraid to say, ‘This is the way I am.’ I’m not trying to hide anymore,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I’m comfortable in my own shoes.”

And a little boy no one else wanted made that happen.

This year, she published a book on her experiences. It’s called “Saving Levi: Left to Die . . . Destined to Live.”

Bentley knows the boy wasn’t the only one who was saved.