Saviour Mbamba works with students in Dr. Patty Coker-Bolt's (far left) pediatric occupational therapy class.

'He just decided he was going to walk.'

For his entire life, 10-year-old Saviour Mbamba only crawled, pulling himself on his battered hands, while his friends at the orphanage in Ghana played soccer around him.

His family didn’t understand his medical diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and his village banished him as evil. Saviour arrived at the Nazareth Home for God’s Children in the care of a nun named Sister Stan when he was 4 years old. He doesn’t remember life before that.

To keep Saviour and another 56 children clothed and fed in a safe home, Sister Stan makes fundraising trips to the United States, where she speaks at churches. When she visited her cousin’s parish in North Charleston a few years ago, she met a couple who would change Saviour’s life.

After listening to Sister Stan’s presentation, retired nurse Joan Tucker knew she wanted to serve those children. “I told her, ‘I can help you with a contribution, but I can help you physically, too,’” Joan remembered. She talked with her husband, Bill, and he agreed to stay home and plan Sister Stan’s future visits to the United States, while Joan worked in Ghana.

Joan first visited the Nazareth Home in January of 2015. She spent her days making medical files for each child and accompanying children to a clinic in town, a facility without air-conditioning, where the Sahara wind blows sand into exam rooms and onto operating tables, and where having a sink does not mean available water. Whenever Joan returned from those trips, little Saviour would wedge himself into a gutter to sit up and greet her – waving and flashing his wide smile.

Saviour laughs with Joan Tucker on her porch in late December.
Saviour laughs with Joan Tucker on her porch in late December. Photos by Sarah Pack

Joan recognized that surgery could correct Saviour’s legs enough for him to sit comfortably in a wheelchair. A specialist in limb deformities at Shriners Hospital in Greenville agreed to perform the operation this past summer, and Joan and Bill arranged for Saviour to travel to Charleston to recover with them.

Administrative problems with his visa delayed his trip to the point that a scheduler called to confirm Saviour’s surgery, but Saviour was still in Africa. “I said we’ll be there,” Joan recalled. “I knew in my heart God would get him here.”

Saviour touched down at 6 p.m. in Charleston one June evening and underwent the procedure to correct his legs in Greenville the next day at noon. Despite a leg break in two places, Saviour declined medication and never complained, as he learned to navigate life for six weeks in casts in a strange country.

Suzanne Cherry, an MUSC graduate and director of rehabilitation at Shriners Hospital, reached out to Dr. Cindy Dodds in the physical therapy division at the MUSC College of Health Professions to see if Dr. Dodds could help Saviour work on his movement back in Charleston.

Dr. Dodds and her students helped Saviour strengthen his legs during visits to the college several times a week for months. Saviour worked with students in the Camden Scott Meyer Pediatric Lab, a play-as-therapy space at the College of Health Professions funded through private gifts. Local company Floyd Brace donated orthotics and bracing for Saviour’s shoes to help make him as comfortable and as mobile as possible.

Dr. Patty Coker-Colt, Dr. Dodds’ colleague in occupational therapy, arranged for students to visit the Tuckers’ home to work with Saviour every day for weeks, providing constraint-induced movement therapy, a rehabilitation technique designed to improve upper extremity function.

The two groups of therapists helped Saviour practice using his wheelchair, brushing his teeth and eventually standing on his own. Then, one day, as Bill remembered, “He just decided he was going to walk.”

Saviour was supposed to return to Ghana in October, but because of his success in therapy, the Tuckers extended his visa until the new year.

Bill Tucker walks with Saviour to the Camden Scott Meyer Pediatric Lab in the College of Health Professions.
Bill Tucker walks with Saviour to the Camden Scott Meyer Pediatric Lab in the College of Health Professions.

By October, Saviour not only could stand up on his own; he put on a Halloween costume and went trick-or-treating. He dressed as Chase, a German shepherd police dog and his favorite PAW Patrol character, and visited his buddies from the College of Health Professions in the Camden Scott Meyer Pediatric Lab.

There Dr. Coker-Bolt’s pediatric occupational therapy class played games with Saviour – writing letters on mats in shaving cream, drawing PAW Patrol characters, hitting balloons -- all with the purpose of making him even stronger on his weakest side. Bill watched and smiled. “This is a guy doctors said would never walk,” he said. “But he’ll go home today and practice, practice, practice everything they did.”

In the six months he spent in South Carolina, Saviour grew five inches and gained seven pounds. He celebrated his first Thanksgiving and learned that Santa Claus says “ho ho ho!”

He watched a Charleston Battery soccer game and skated at the Carolina Ice Palace. He swam in the Tuckers’ pool and at the beach. He joined the Tuckers for a family trip to the North Carolina mountains.

Bill and Joan’s daughter printed photos from their vacation on dog tags that wouldn’t get lost as easily back at the orphanage. On one side of the dog tag Saviour, Joan and Bill give a thumbs-up on his first train ride, and on the opposite side they smile against a backdrop of yellow fall leaves.

Right before he left Charleston, Saviour had an opportunity that proved rare for even local children: a chance to make snow angels after this January’s winter storm.

Joan and Saviour flew back to Ghana a few days later. Joan will stay for several weeks to help Saviour readjust, and he returns to Charleston in the summer for Camp Hand to Hands at the College of Health Professions, a yearly program to help children like him, also made possible through the Camden Scott Meyer Pediatric Fund.

Saviour wasn’t sad about returning to the orphanage. He missed his friends, and now he can play soccer with them.