It’s the kind of thing kids do all the time: Something on the ground catches their attention. It looks interesting and shiny. They pick it up. More often than not, it doesn’t alter your life forever.
When Blessing Makwera was 14 years old, he found a landmine detonator in a field where he lived in Zimbabwe, Africa. Blessing thought the metal object was a small electric motor. He inserted the detonator between his teeth to free his hands so he could work. As he clenched his teeth, Blessing then carefully wired the detonator to a cell phone battery hoping the charge would bring the device to life. In that moment, the wires and his saliva completed the electrical circuit and his life was forever changed. Blessing suffered multiple injuries such as a depleted and seared tongue, his upper and lower jawbones were shattered, a large part of his face and lips removed and only two chipped wisdom teeth remained. Though he survived, Blessing could barely function. His mother soon abandoned him out of stigma and fear. Although his father stood firmly by his side, people in his community shunned him because of his disfigurement.
Two years after the accident, Blessing met the volunteer reconstructive surgical team Operation of Hope which had been donating surgeries around the world for 25 years in remote places such as Latin America, Vietnam and Africa. In 2009, the team was donating a facial reconstructive surgical mission in Zimbabwe to help those afflicted with birth defects such as cleft-lips and palates. After hearing about Operation of Hope on Zimbabwe’s only radio station, Blessing took a 6-hour bus ride by himself into the capital city of Harare, so he could meet this team of volunteer surgeons. Deep down, Blessing wished for anything that would help him, as he could only drink tea and eat water-soaked beans. Plus, Blessing was tired of using an old kitchen rag to wipe the constant drool that dripped from a notch in his lower lip.
Operation of Hope’s President Jennifer Trubenbach recalls meeting Blessing at Harare Central Hospital in Zimbabwe.
"I knew immediately that Blessing was a unique kid. He had this big personality and thirst for learning and carried an innocent sense of humor which people adored. I remember telling Blessing—we will try to find a hospital with highly trained free-flap surgeons, specialized equipment and the needed resources to get his jawbone and teeth replaced and his tongue and lips surgically repaired so he could speak more clearly."Jennifer Trubenbach
For the next three years, Jennifer and her team made multiple appeals to qualified hospitals around the world on Blessings behalf. The conversations always ended in “Sorry, but no.” Jennifer then connected with Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California, an acute-care hospital part of the Sharp HealthCare system. Sharp Memorial agreed to donate the multiple and expensive surgeries. Jennifer hung up the phone and was literally beside herself. “After I collected myself, I immediately sent a sweet and simple e-mail to Blessing’s family— “Dear Blessing, We have found a hospital here in the U.S. which is willing to donate your surgery!” His father read the note and replied:
"There are no words…only tears."Blessing Makwera's father
Thus began a journey of healing. Over the past two years, a team of surgeons inspired by Dr. Joel Berger, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon; and Drs. Thomas Vecchione and James Chao, plastic surgeons, donated their time and expertise to rebuild Blessing’s face. Several surgeries and procedures were performed to repair the complex damage. The most critical procedure was the removal of his left fibula in his lower leg, which Sharp Memorial surgeons reshaped into a new jaw. To be successful, the team had to work around blood vessels as thin as a pen stroke. Any damage to the vessels could have stopped vital blood-flow to the bone. The operation took 15 hours. After the surgery to reshape his jaw, Blessing underwent procedures to repair the skin and other soft tissue around his mouth. Earlier this year, he received a set of dental implants and bit into an apple for the first time in nearly a decade. Blessing’s response—he smiled as others in the room dried their eyes.
The unimaginable is now a reality. Blessing is now 21 years old and can laugh, speak and eat, and most of all, carry on as a young man with a bright future. This November, Blessing will return to San Diego for Sharp’s “All-Staff Assembly,” an annual event during which employees recommit to the organization’s mission. During this evening, Blessing will stand in front of more than 20,000 employees, volunteers, media and affiliated physicians to be honored for his bravery, perseverance, and grace. Blessing has also been featured on CNN’s Inside Africa hosted by Isha Sesay.
There are many highs and lows to Blessing’s incredible journey. Blessing expressed his emotions that included so much trauma and recovery.
“I believe I was chosen to have this accident. It may be hard to understand, but because I am able to share my story, I will help others who are going through similar situations. It was all meant to be.”Blessing Makwera