Cause for Celebration: Chinecherem's Transformation
On a May morning, the rays of sunlight cast ambient shadows around Chinyere as she sits on a wooden bench on her balcony. In the open courtyard, her daughter, Chinecherem, unfastens school uniforms from the clothesline. A smile passes between them.
Seven years ago, such a glance would not have elicited smiles and instead would have spurred sorrow for Chineyere.
“I couldn’t bear to look at her condition,” Chineyere admits, remembering when Chinecherem was born with two curved feet. “It really made me ashamed.”
Despite her best efforts to hide Chinecherem’s clubfoot, word spread, and with it hurtful rumours. Neighbours and guests, pretending interest in the baby, came to gawk at her strange little feet. They arrived with curiosity and left with new embellishments to add to the gossip. Word spread through the markets, shops, schools, offices, churches, bars, and eventually reached relatives and friends in far flung cities.
“Some people openly said it was our dead ancestors, whose burial rites were not complete, reincarnated through her with these deformities,” recalls Chineyere.
Another theory, discussed in whispers, was that Chineyere had passed the condition on to Chinecherem as Chinyere suffers from partial paralysis which affects her right hand and foot.
As the rumours and gossip grew, Chinecherem’s parents searched tirelessly for a remedy. They visited bone-setters, herbalists, and pastors. They observed prayers and fasting, rubbed Chinecherem’s legs with olive oil, herbs, and ointments, but nothing improved her feet. The family also sought remedies in medical facilities recommended by friends and families, including those that required long travels into distant cities and suburbs.
The constant searching and uncertainty impacted the family’s entire life. Schooling for Chinecherem and her three siblings was put on hold to offset the burden of Chinecherem’s medical bills. Despite all the travel, attempts at treatment, worry, sleepless nights, and heavy costs, nothing changed. Chinecherem’s father, Kalu, was exceedingly frustrated and disappointed. “I didn’t see any reason to continue making all that sacrifice and spending money without any results to show for it,” he recalls. “Instead of improving, it even worsened at one point.”
In an attempt to shield their daughter from ridicule and curiosity, Kalu and Chineyere decided to limit Chinecherem to an indoor life. She would only be allowed to play inside their house, she was excused from outdoor errands, and only allowed outdoors at night under the cover of darkness. If the family attended outdoor events, Chinecherem would wear socks and wrap her feet in cloth.
But as she grew, this routine became harder and harder to maintain. Chinecherem was agile and active and longed to run and play. One day she snuck out of her house, into the streets and onto a playground. When the children playing saw her curved feet and strange gait they abandoned their sandcastles and games and began to mock her. In the inevitable fight that ensued, Chinecherem was easily knocked to the ground before returning home crying to her mother who had watched the whole thing from a distance in tears.
Treatment, At Long Last
In 2019 when Chinecherem was 8 years old, Chineyere saw a flyer advertising a solution for clubfoot. She called the phone number and was connected to Dr. Uche, a medical doctor at The Straight Child Foundation, a Nigerian NGO that partners with MiracleFeet to provide clubfoot treatment at no cost to families. He encouraged her to visit the clinic, which has treated more than 1,700 cases of clubfoot since it opened in 2009.
The next morning, both parents and their daughter, full of new exuberance, travelled to the clinic.
When they arrived, the family was ushered into a quiet yellow room furnished with office chairs and a desk where Dr. Uche provides counseling and assurances to distraught parents, while a nurse makes notes on the progress of babies undergoing clubfoot treatment or the severity of new cases. “Many parents come with so much panic and fear.” comments Dr. Uche. “We have to give them hope. We have to calm them down, knowing the burden that clubfoot places on families. This is a job that requires a lot of empathy and kindness.”
After completing some intake paperwork, the family was escorted to the second room – this one much louder and livelier with nursing mothers, crying babies, doctors casting tiny feet, and assistants fitting treated children for foot braces.
Chinecherem, now 12 years old, presented a more complex case than had she been treated as a baby. Instead of the standard series of weekly casts generally used for infants and toddlers, her treatment took several years and also required surgery to set her feet into a perfect shape. Older clubfoot patients over the age of five usually require that the Ponseti treatment be complimented by such surgeries to further ease their tendons and ligaments that have grown stiff with age. Had Chinecherem’s parents been told where and how to treat her condition at birth, not only would her early childhood have been drastically different, but her clubfoot treatment would have been much simpler.
A New Freedom
Today, Chinecherem hops down stairs, runs, and dances, which delights her parents. More than delights–it marks the opening of a new phase in the family’s life. “It was a big celebration,” says Peter, smiling.
The next morning, Peter drives Chinecherem and her siblings around Umueze Ibeku, on the outskirts of Umuahia, to visit their new school. The children were overjoyed and loved the open windows, rustic iron gate, and a garden wall surrounding the school house.
In this remote school, Chinecherem has grown and matured. She’s an excellent student and admired by her peers. As she solves arithmetic questions on a hanging blackboard, she receives applause from her classmates and a special grin from her friends.
Back home, both parents imagine a bright future for their daughter with a special hope that she will become a nurse. She loves the idea. However her future unfolds, her family’s revived happiness has come to stay. Where once there was shame and mockery, now there’s new admiration and hope.
“Her healing was a surprise to many,” recalls Peter. “The day we reached home [with her treated feet] she was a marvel.
Those who mocked us came back to celebrate her.”
Your support this #GivingTuesday could radically change the trajectory of a young life affected by clubfoot. A $500 treatment ensures that children like Chinecherem can walk, run, attend school, play with friends, and revel in the childhood they deserve.