Ugandan bomb victim on road to recovery, helped by Austin nonprofit, local doctors

Posted December 25, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 3,869 views


By Mary Ann Roser, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF ~ Evelyn Apoko was 12 in July 2001 when rebel fighters in her native Uganda kidnapped her. They stole her childhood, and three years later, Apoko lost something just as precious — part of her face.

A bomb from a government plane left Apoko, who now lives with a family in Travis County, with a horrific gaping hole where her mouth had been. Government fighters with the Lord’s Resistance Army denied her medical care, threatened her with death if she cried out in pain and ostracized her “because I smelled and looked ugly,” Apoko, now 22, wrote in an essay. When she overheard the rebels plotting to kill her, she fled under the cover of night and took her first steps toward a new life.

It has been a long road from Uganda to Austin.

In seven years, Apoko has been rebuilding her life with help from an Austin-based charity and local doctors, including Brad Theriot and Fredrick Shaw. She had surgery Monday, the eighth in a series that included six free dental and plastic surgeries, starting in 2006 in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a previous operation in Uganda that paralyzed part of her face.

Apoko has been on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” appeared before Congress to bear witness to the rebel-led massacres and child kidnappings in Uganda, received national attention for taking Rush Limbaugh to task after he defended the Lord’s Resistance Army and criticized President Barack Obama for sending troops to fight the rebels.

“I’m just grateful for all the people I have met and all the work they are doing,” Apoko said at Theriot’s office last week. “I cannot put into words. I am so lucky.”

Although Apoko laughs readily — a closed-mouth laugh because she can’t open wider than 1½ inches — she is still emotionally wounded.

“I think it will take her a lifetime to heal from the devastating trauma she endured, but she is strong and determined, and I believe she can find the inner peace and happiness her heart yearns for,” said Zoë Adams, co-founder and executive director of Strongheart Fellowship, the international nonprofit in Austin that found Apoko free medical care and schooling. “Her … desire to use her life to help others is a gift to the world.”

Apoko wants to be a voice for Ugandan children who have suffered from tragedies. Strongheart helps traumatized, resilient young people from around the world become positive forces for change, Adams said.

Apoko wants the world to know of the atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which uses young children as soldiers, sex slaves and “mules” carrying heavy loads. She got attention from CNN and other news outlets when she politely told Limbaugh in October that he was wrong to defend the group.

She is in touch with her family in Uganda and went back to her parents and nine siblings after receiving lower dentures in Indiana in 2007-08, Adams said. But she did not have an easy time back home. Her mother died in 2008, and Apoko had headaches and dizziness because her face was caving in on one side.

Adams brought her back to the United States for medical care and found a physical therapist in Austin who specializes in the face, jaw and neck, Mark Strickland. He was happy to help, but Apoko had so much scar tissue that Strickland asked Theriot to get involved.

Apoko is living with a family that suffered its own loss, the death of a 17-year-old daughter and sister killed in a car wreck four years ago. That family felt connections between their lost loved one and Apoko, said the mother, Sue Parsons of San Leanna. Parsons’ daughter, Helena Pippins, was passionate about raising money to help the “invisible children” of Uganda, the name for those abducted.

Apoko was one of them.

Parsons sings with a group of women who perform each spring at Unity Church of the Hills to raise money for a cause. In April they chose the Amala Foundation, which every summer hosts a camp for refugee, immigrant and international children. Apoko told her story at the fundraiser.

“We were all moved by Evelyn’s speech, and then she got up on the stage and danced,” Parsons said. It was the same stage on which her daughter, Helena, had once danced.

Parsons said her family — husband Jerry Pippins, another daughter who lives at home and a nephew living with them — thought Apoko would be a good addition.

“She loves to laugh and tell jokes and do word play,” Parsons said. At the same time, Apoko is working though the trauma that she suffered.

“It took her awhile to trust us,” Parsons, 57, said. But she is happy now, and “we love having her. We feel blessed to have her. … We all have learned a lot from her.”

Because of Apoko, Parsons and Theriot learned this month they also share a connection. Theriot lost his teenage son, Blake, less than a month before Helena Pippins died. Helena attended a memorial service for Blake Theriot. A little more than three weeks later, she was killed.

Since losing Blake, “there’s no question I have more compassion for people in need,” said Theriot, a surgeon with Austin Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery. “I know what it’s about.”

On Monday, he placed six implants, which act like the roots of a tooth, in the upper part of Apoko’s mouth. Those titanium sockets lie under the gum tissue. Over four months, her bone will attach to the surface of the implant, giving it stability. After that, Theriot will perform a procedure to expose the implants and attach temporary posts that prepare the mouth to accept dentures.

About six weeks after that, Shaw, a prosthodontist, will take impressions and construct a bar and dentures.

“Having upper teeth will give her a more normal appearance… and help her feel better about herself,” Shaw said.

Theriot tried to perform the implant procedure at his office last week. But Apoko, who was under light sedation, groaned in pain when he tried to open her mouth wide enough to work. At that point, a hunt began to find a hospital where Apoko could receive free services and general anesthesia.

St. David’s Medical Center stepped up, along with several others, including Austin Anesthesiology Group, Image Dent, Materialise Dental Co. and Biomet 3i.

Surgery “was challenging,” Theriot said, “but I couldn’t have expected it to go better.”

Apoko is expected to leave the hospital today. She will stay in Austin for five or six months to heal, possibly longer.

Her care in Austin probably would cost $50,000 to $60,000, Theriot estimated, including hospitalization.

After she recovers, she will resume her schooling at the House of Tutors. She hopes to improve her English, which she did not start learning until after she was found in the bush by soldiers in October 2004, assisted by a rehabilitation center and then brought to Strongheart’s attention.

Apoko wants to go to college so she can learn how best to help children back home.

“She has a heart that feels deeply for other people,” Adams said. “She can’t rest in this life until she is part of making this world a gentler place.”

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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