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Ready for the Return Home

After 15 Months, the Largest Part of Marie Eva’s Shriners Hospital Journey is Nearly Done

When 5-year-old Marie Eva steps off the plane in the West African nation of Ivory Coast next month, she’ll walk into the waiting arms of a family who has missed her desperately for the past 15 months.

Walk, not crawl.

This ability to put one foot in front of the other comes thanks to the treatment she has received at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis. Marie Eva has undergone seven surgeries led by Mark Miller, M.D., to treat arthrogryposis, a condition that severely limited the range of motion in her hips, knees and feet, and left her scooting about pulled mostly by her arms for the first three-plus years of her life.

“She’s like a whole different girl now, not only with her legs, but her personality has just really blossomed,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s amazing to see.”

But to walk into the arms of her family back home, she first has to walk out of the arms of the host family that has cared for her during her stay in the United States – Bonnie and her husband, Pete, along with their three children, Annie, Owen and William.

“Dr. Miller and the team have delivered such wonderful care to her,” said Bonnie while Marie Eva ate her new favorite breakfast – peanut butter and jelly on toast – one cold, rainy January morning. “I felt like we were the only ones there sometimes, that they were all there to treat just Marie Eva.”

‘Shriners Hospital is awesome’

The girl’s treatment was arranged through Children’s Medical Missions West, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization that relies on a growing network of host families and the generosity of medical facilities such as the St. Louis Shriners Hospital to bring life-changing treatment to kids from developing countries. It is led by Tami Shobe, who, in addition to having six children of her own, has provided foster care to more than 300 others. Yes, you read that right.

“Shriners Hospital is awesome,” Strobe said. “I just adore the St. Louis hospital because they accept a child and get them right in.”

Marie Eva is one of two children from Children’s Medical Missions West being treated at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital now. A third child, a boy from Ivory Coast’s northeast neighbor Burkina Faso, is scheduled to arrive in mid-February.

‘I’ve been brave’

Marie Eva arrived in the United State in October 2019, unable to speak a word of English, but she immediately blended into Bonnie and Pete’s family. “The first night we brought her home, we got out some blocks, and the kids just started building together,” Bonnie said. “They didn’t have to know each other’s language. They just started playing.”

The language barrier evaporated over Marie Eva’s first four months in the United States. Now she speaks with a fluency that’s hard to imagine for someone so new to English. She uses those words to talk about the love of her preschool – “I like the playground and stuff. And I like Mateo. He’s nice.” – and her fondness for her host mom – “She takes such good care of me. I really like cleaning with her.”

Marie Eva’s progress hasn’t been fast, and it hasn’t been easy. Dr. Miller took a systematic approach to addressing her three issues: knees that were essentially locked in place at nearly 100-degree angles, club feet that were turned down and in, and hips that were turned out.

“With her legs the way they were, there was no way she would have ever been able to stand,” Dr. Miller said.

Surgeries as complex as Marie Eva’s don’t come without discomfort. But Marie Eva and her host family have remained positive. As Marie Eva says: “I’ve been brave.”

Now, when she sees the building where she has spent so much time during her stay in the United States, she smiles, points and says, “There’s my hospital!” She comes twice weekly for physical therapy, but even that is winding down.

“She’s done what she came to do,” Bonnie said. “She’s met all the goals and done wonderfully. Now she’s ready to go home to her momma.”

Dr. Miller said that while it is unlikely Marie Eva will ever walk without braces and crutches, she has gained much during her time in the United States. “She has her independence now. She can go to school and basically live her life as she grows up,” he said.

Which makes Dr. Miller, a Harvard Medical School graduate who completed his fellowship at St. Louis’s Washington University School of Medicine, feel grateful. “It’s really a privilege that I get to work with kids and help them fulfill their dreams and goals,” he said. “Marie Eva has worked so hard. It’s a great partnership.”

‘A beautiful picture of God’s love’

She won’t be going empty handed. Her host family is making a photo album filled with memories from the past 15 months – her first snowfall, a trip to the zoo, the many times she went swimming in Bonnie’s parents’ pool. The photo album is for Marie Eva, yes, but it’s also for the girl’s parents.

“They loved her so much to let her go here for a long time to get the treatment she needs so she can walk and do the things she needs to do as an adult,” Bonnie said. “That takes courage.”

Marie Eva already has some plans for those adult years: “I want to be a teacher and a mom, like my mom and Momma Bonnie.”

The upcoming farewell won’t be as much “goodbye” as “see you later.” Marie Eva will be coming back to the United States as she grows to be fitted with new leg braces and perhaps have some minor surgeries to make sure her condition doesn’t reoccur, Dr. Miller said.

Each time she’ll stay with those who were there when she took her first steps. Bonnie said she sees all of this as part of a higher purpose. “The care, support and devotion Marie Eva received from Shriners Hospital, as well as from family and friends, was never interrupted,” she said. “To me, this is a beautiful picture of how God’s love reaches down deep, rescues, restores and brings unity.”

Pictured: (top right) Part of Marie Eva's treatment involved double fixators, halo-type devices on her legs, as well as a lot of physical therapy to help give her knees some range of motion.

Marie Eva with staff member

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