When Maryann and Randolf Galt met Gideon on their trip to a remote village in Ghana, he was suffering from significant health complications. At 4 years old, he weighed just 20 pounds and suffered from malnutrition. He also had a birth defect known as hemifacial microsomia, in which the bones of his right ear, jaw, eye sockets and cheeks didn’t properly form. At some point in his young life, he also had a tracheotomy, but no one could tell the Galts why (possibly for a twisted windpipe) or when.
“Can you help this boy?” Gideon’s caretaker (his biological parents abandoned him) asked the Galts, who reside in Kirkland.
At the time, the couple was in Africa on a humanitarian mission. “There was a crisis going on in Africa with a lot of orphans; their parents had died of AIDS, and there was no one to take care of these kids. So my husband said, ‘Let’s take a trip over there; let’s do an evaluation, an assessment of the needs.’ That was back in 2001,” says Maryann.
As part of their efforts, the Galts helped the village of about 100 people—who primarily picked and hand-processed cocoa beans to sustain themselves—acquire well-water systems, food-processing machinery and the means to some other basic necessities.
Maryann, who was 55 at the time, says there was an obvious, immediate connection between the boy and the couple, as Gideon climbed up on their laps seconds after meeting them. But still, her reaction to the caretaker’s question was: “Well, we aren’t medical people, so I don’t think so.”
But her husband, Randolph, who was 70, had a different thought: “Yes, we can,” he said.
“I was shocked at that at first,” Maryann said. “But we said we’d go back to the United States and see what support we could get from the doctors.”
The Galts found that many local doctors were willing to help Gideon, “an orphaned child” in his village, and give him a second chance on life. So six months later they went back to Africa to get the boy.
Gideon, now 16, says he doesn’t have a lot of memories from the village, but the ones he does have are vivid: dancing in a monsoon, playing with tires and making toys out of tuna cans with other children.
And he remembers being told that he was leaving.
“I remember my caretaker told me this one thing: ‘God has answered our prayers, and these two people have come to our village, and they are willing to take you to another place, a happier place, with a better life,’” Gideon says. From then on, he had little fear of going with the Galts and understood that he was getting help.
Maryann says the process of getting Gideon out of Africa was difficult, and they had to endure the seemingly endless demands of a corrupt government, but it was well worth the effort. She says some of the immediate joys of watching Gideon get used to a new life were seeing him experience simple things, such as ice cream, flushing toilets, airplanes and fancy cars. But there were also some frightening experiences; one of the most unexpected for Maryann was Gideon’s apprehension of entering buildings, which he thought were all medical facilities, and even more troublesome, his deeply rooted fear of doctors.
“Something happened to Gideon. We don’t know what, but there was real terror there, just terror of medical facilities and hospitals. He said they tried to kill him, which, you know, it might have seemed like that to a child,” Maryann says.
“I didn’t have fond memories of those times in Africa because [the doctors] weren’t really as gentle; they were more get it done and suck it up,” Gideon says.
Maryann and Gideon both credit an incredible team of local doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital and local plastic surgeons for easing Gideon’s fear and getting him the health care he desperately needed. Maryann says that the doctors, especially Dr. Marshall Partington, a plastic surgeon in Kirkland, took the time to befriend Gideon, have conversations about things other than his surgeries and even take him to sporting events—all to show Gideon that doctors can be good people. Because of their special attention, Gideon has been through 15 successful surgeries and has made tremendous progress.
“They cut from ear to ear and pulled his face down. They gave him a metal nose here; they put in metal cheeks; they broke the palate of his mouth and put a bar in; they moved his eye socket. His whole face was pretty mobile. He’s got a lot of bolts and screws and everything under there.
“Then they scraped the top of his rib bone and put it under his skin so [that] it would grow and form the outline, the ridge of the ear. And after that they raised it for elevation. So it was a process, and then they took more ribs for his jawbone and stacked them; he had rods that came through both sides of his jaw, and we had to turn them to stretch his jaw forward. They are working on getting his teeth straight. That’s the last major thing. He still has a twist in his jaw,” Maryann says.
Throughout the years of surgeries, Gideon has maintained a positive attitude, overcome his fears and has nothing but gratitude for his medical team.
“They’ve been a big part of my family,” Gideon says. “I think of them as friends. They gave me a new hope on life and changed my perspective of heroes. They are really special, and if I could do anything for them, I would. They are amazing people and have worked with me all my life.”
Gideon still has a few surgeries left, but these days he says he’s more focused on college, sports, friends and travel. Maryann says Gideon is excelling in school and came away from his experience with an incredible compassion for other people and a love of life, evident in his travels (with the Galts) to Nicaragua and Fiji on other humanitarian missions.
“Life is life, I think; what’s the point in being depressed about the past and wasting your life away?” Gideon says. “You might as well take advantage of your life. If you dwell on the depressing . . . there’s no point. Why not take advantage of what you have and be happy?”
As for Maryann and Randolph, they couldn’t be happier with their decision. “The rewards are far greater than we could have ever imagined. To see a kid aspire to where he has, we’re just thrilled; we couldn’t be happier. And for anyone who thinks they might be interested in doing something like this, just do it. When you think you can’t do it, you can. It will add so much meaning to your life. There’s always something you can do.”