Doctors try to erase scars of Kenya embassy bombing; Medical team performs plastic surgery on victims to aid in healing process


NAIROBI, Kenya -- "You know, when you have the scars," Rebecca Gicuku said, "everybody is staring at you. They tell you, 'Sorry.' I don't feel comfortable. It reminds me of the horrible day."

Gicuku, 27, was composed enough to talk as a doctor dug two incisions the shape of the letter W into her forehead. She winced. The anesthetic was not working well.

But it seemed worth the pain. The doctor was a plastic surgeon smoothing down two bulbous scars, evidence in flesh of the bomb blast that killed more than 200 people on Aug. 7 and wounded 5,000 others.

When terrorists destroyed the U.S. Embassy here, doctors worked around the clock for three straight days. They had no time to worry about being neat. But this month a team of plastic surgeons -- Kenyans, Americans and Spaniards, along with a crew of anesthesiologists from New York and New Jersey -- have been going beyond those life-saving efforts, hoping to erase the physical scars from some 350 survivors.

The emotional scars are a different matter. But the surgeons hope that lessening some of the surface wounds might open the way to a deeper healing.

"We are going to try to bring you back to where you were," Dr. Meshach Omguti, the chief of plastic surgery at Jomo Kenyatta National Hospital, assured Gicuku, a secretary, as he began to stitch up her forehead. Her face and chest were blasted with glass from her office window.

"She will never forget the day the bomb blast occurred," he said. "It changed lives. But this helps."

Mary Lou Furnas, a surgical technician from Orange, Calif., whose husband, David, put together the team of four American surgeons, said: "We're doing more than repairing scars. We're giving them an ego boost, a psychological boost."

Plastic surgery may not seem the likely first concern for bombing victims. But soon after the bombing, doctors from the African Medical and Research Foundation decided that hundreds of people would need reconstructive surgery, some of it cosmetic and some of it a medical necessity. The foundation runs East African Flying Doctors Services, surgeons who travel to rural areas fixing problems such as cleft palates.

The group raised money and recruited six foreign surgeons and eight anesthesiologists and technicians, all of whom donated their time and most of whom had experience working in poor parts of the world.

The U.S. government gave half a million dollars to the program; British Airways donated airfare; Kenyatta hospital supplied some staff members and operating rooms, and various drug and equipment companies gave tens of thousands of dollars in medicine and machines.

Dr. Neil Ratner, for example, a 49-year-old anesthesiologist from Manhattan who has made several medical trips to a village in northern Kenya, jumped at the chance to head up the anesthesiology team these past weeks. Seeing patient after patient -- blinded, deaf, riddled with shrapnel -- made him realize just how destructive the bomb was.

"We all felt badly before," Ratner said. "But when you see all the scars and the tragedy, you see that there are human beings involved, and it's not just a sound bite."

Each doctor operated on a half-dozen or more people a day. Much of the work has been picking out pieces of glass, some the size of silver dollars, from the victims' bodies.

There were also far more serious cases, such as those of two patients who by coincidence also have the last name Maina and share a first name as well, David.

The younger David Maina, 13, had been sitting on a bus across the street from the embassy when the bomb went off. His jaw was nearly ripped off.

This month, Furnas, 67, grafted some skin from David's groin onto his face, tightening his mouth, smoothing out some scars and setting the stage for a later operation that will rebuild the bones of his jaw.

The other David Maina is a 55-year-old cab driver who was standing next to his Mercedes when the bomb went off, taking off an ear and burning big patches of his scalp and chest.

The work on Maina was extensive: Surgeons implanted what amounts to a balloon under his scalp to stretch the skin so it ultimately can be sewn up over his head scars.

But his own wish for the operation was more basic. He wanted his ear reshaped so it would once again support his glasses.

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