Nothing stands in the way of Leon’s dreams, thanks to his mom

January 12, 2023

When Olinda gave birth to a son with clubfoot, she assumed, like many mothers in her position in Zimbabwe, that it must in some way be her fault. Early prenatal scans had not indicated anything amiss with the baby’s feet, so she decided the problem must have arisen during the latter part of pregnancy.

“During that time my workload was a lot, so I thought maybe it was because I spent too long working,” says Olinda, who lives with her husband and two sons in the Highfields neighborhood of Harare. “Or maybe it was because I hadn’t had enough sleep. Or maybe it was the type of sadza [porridge made from cornmeal] I was eating. Or was it because I wasn’t going to church enough? Nobody could give me answers.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t provide any details about the condition, but they advised her to return with baby Leon in six weeks to begin treatment. It was an agonizing period of waiting, doubt, and uncertainty for Olinda.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “And all our relatives were talking behind our backs. They were asking what I had done to my child.”

Some tried to dissuade her from taking Leon back to the hospital for treatment, offering instead to put her in touch with spiritual healers at their local churches. But she ignored them, determined to follow the doctor’s instructions.

The spread of the Ponseti method of clubfoot treatment has had an enormous impact in enabling patients in the Global South to access the care they need. The method involves using plaster casts to correct the position of the feet, followed by a tenotomy – a simple procedure that allows the foot to fully straighten. A foot abduction brace is then worn to prevent relapse. It is inexpensive, simple, effective, and requires no major surgery.

Over the subsequent weeks, Leon’s feet began to straighten out. But when it came to his tenotomy, his mother recalls, there was a hiccup. Just as the doctor began to work, the blade snapped off the end of the scalpel. Already anxious, Olinda fell to her knees and prayed.

The rest of the operation went smoothly, but further challenges lay ahead. At night Leon found the brace hard to sleep in, and Olinda would lie awake listening to him crying. At one point, unable to withstand his cries, she removed the brace in desperation, only to replace it again after noticing the progress they had already made was beginning to slip away and Leons’ feet were starting to relapse and turn back inwards.

Despite the stresses and frustrations, what kept Olinda going, she says, were her interactions with the staff and other patients at the clubfoot clinic at Parirenyatwa hospital.

“Sometimes I’d go to the clinic feeling so down, but by the time I left I’d have changed completely,” she says. “Those guys have been amazing to us since day one.”

She remembers one particular day when a medical doctor at the clinic, Dr. Chidza, sat her down and reassured her that everything would be ok. He told her not to overthink things, and that Leon would be just fine. From that moment on, she says, she found peace.

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“It might be God’s way of sending angels,” she says as tears fill her eyes, recalling the kindness of the clinic staff. “They offered me physical and emotional support. And eventually, I saw the light.”

Not finding sufficient words to thank them, Olinda, who works as a baker, specializing in wedding and birthday cakes, sent them homemade cakes as a token of her gratitude.

“I didn’t think in a million years he’d be able to do that,” says Olinda. “You would never even know he had had clubfoot.”

When Leon was just nine months old, he started walking, startling his mother, who never dreamed he would be so mobile so young. Today, he is four years old and when not at school, he spends most of his time playing in the yard with his older brother. Their favorite games involve zooming about on a scooter, pushing each other in a toy car, and racing across the length of the compound rolling car tires.

She says Leon is clever and inquisitive, always asking questions. He wants to be a doctor, she adds, but Leon corrects her. Actually, he says, he’s now decided he wants to be an airplane pilot instead.

“If you keep a child in that condition without treatment it’ll weigh on you for the rest of your life,” says Olinda. “I’d be watching him sitting alone while all the other children played. Staying at home won’t solve a thing. You’ve got to ignore anyone who gives negative thoughts. You’ve got to be strong and have faith.”