A severely burned boy. His devoted caregiver. Their extraordinary journey.
Photographs by Jessica Rinaldi | Globe Staff
In a small room at Shriners Hospital, Alex Gitungano woke Leo Ikoribitangaza before his most recent surgery. Leo suffered severe burns after falling into a cooking fire at home in Burundi when he was 2 years old. With help from Christian missionaries, Leo, who turns 5 in May, and his caregiver, Alex, who is 26, came to Boston in the summer of 2014 for treatment.
Carley Serwat, a missionary from Idaho, helped engineer Leo and Alex’s trip to the United States. Carley and her husband, Ladd, worked with Alex to arrange care for Leo and get the necessary documents for Alex and Leo to travel together. (Photo: Carley Serwat)
One morning in January 2015, seven months after arriving in Boston together, Leo turned to Alex and asked, “Are you my dad?” Alex brought out a photo of Leo's family and had Leo point to his father, mother, brothers, and sisters. Leo ran his finger over each face and tried to recall the names.
Alex found himself suddenly thrown into the role of a parent. There were times he felt he couldn’t handle it, but he was convinced God had called him to treat Leo as his son. Every morning following Leo’s December 2014 surgery, Alex gently removed Leo’s mask to wash his face and apply ointment to his skin.
In spite of everything Leo has been through, he remains an exuberant child. In late March, as he and Alex played on the floor, Leo’s infectious giggle rang throughout the house on Cape Cod where they were staying.
Initially, Carley, Ladd, and Alex sought treatment for Leo in Africa. Carley posted updates of Leo’s progress on Facebook. After a failed surgery in Uganda, a friend Ladd and Carley knew from church helped connect them with Shriners, whose mission is to treat needy children free of charge. On a day in March 2015, Leo playfully climbed onto an exam table at the Boston hospital for a checkup.
Dr. Richard Ehrlichman, a staff plastic surgeon at Shriners and Massachusetts General Hospital, embraced Alex before one of Leo’s medical appointments. Over the course of several months, Dr. Ehrlichman repaired the upper and lower eyelids of Leo’s right eye, fashioned new lips for him, and repositioned his nose.
“I’m smart. I’m wonderful. I’m handsome.” Every morning or night, Alex makes Leo recite these words in the mirror. Even before Leo knew English, Alex made him say it. Alex sees Leo’s self-esteem as his project.
Leo playfully threw up his arm at Logan Airport as he looked out the window at the plane about to take him and Alex to Minneapolis, on their way to Idaho to visit Carley and Ladd.
After the plane landed in Minneapolis, Leo made his way down the aisle. When he flies, Leo is treated like a minor celebrity – invited to hand out snacks, help collect trash, and visit the cockpit.
Alex and Leo reunited with Carley and Ladd at the airport in Spokane, Washington, in February 2015. The Idaho couple flew them out West for a visit between treatments.
Ladd and Carley’s church, Anthem Friends in Hayden, Idaho, has championed Leo’s case, raising money to get him and Alex to the United States and helping to support them financially during Leo’s treatment.
Leo, who did not know how to speak English when he first came to the United States, is now fluent in American cartoons and video games. Ladd’s father, Richard Serwat, obliged with a screening of “Scooby-Doo” at the family's home in Rathdrum, Idaho.
After arriving in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Carley and Ladd brought Alex and Leo directly to the lake, where Leo wrote his name in the sand. For the pair from Burundi, it was a welcome break from the relentless snow back in Boston.
Alex played guitar and sang a gospel song called “My God is Good” as Leo danced with Carley and members of the Scammell family in their living room in Coeur d’Alene. Faith is central to Alex’s life. “I don’t know where God is taking me,” he says. “My desire is to help Leo to the end – until he looks better, until everything is done.”
As Leo became restless at Anthem Friends church, Carley stepped out of the service to take him to the child-care center. It was a rare break for Alex, who is Leo’s constant caregiver and companion. When some of the children at the center asked about Leo’s mask, Carley explained that it was just like wearing a Band-Aid.
Leo hid in a closet as he played a game of hide-and-seek with Alex in Coeur d'Alene.
As Leo fiddled with his motorcycle helmet, Ladd’s father, Richard, backed a dirt bike out of the garage. He scooped Leo up and they zipped around the family property in Rathdrum, Idaho.
Alex and Leo are expected to return to Burundi some time this summer, and then Leo is due back at Shriners next year. But many questions remain, and friends and supporters of Alex and Leo in the United States are concerned about his transition home.
When Alex and Leo first arrived in the United States, in late June of 2014, they knew almost no one. They spent their first two weeks holed up in a Charlestown hotel room. Bit by bit, they forged a community, a network of strangers who opened their homes to them.
Through a chance encounter at a church in Jamaica Plain, Alex and Leo met Nate Criser, who, upon hearing their story, offered them a place to stay. Since then, Alex and Leo have spent much of their time in Massachusetts at the Cape Cod home of Criser and his family.
Alex and Leo took a break from schoolwork to play together at the home of Darrell and June Minnich in Needham, another family that has sheltered the Burundians during their American sojourn.
During one of their near-daily home-school sessions, Alex taught Leo how to add numbers using a marker board and wooden blocks. In the months since arriving in the United States, Leo has gone from speaking no English to being comfortable and conversant. He can now write his name and read short words.
As the two shared an afternoon snack together at the Crisers’ kitchen table in West Yarmouth, Leo leaned in to give Alex a kiss on the cheek. “He loves me so much, and I love him so much,” Alex says.
Dr. Richard Ehrlichman handed Leo a camera to play with during a checkup at Shriners Hospital. As Leo shot a selfie, Ehrlichman showed how he would work to rebuild Leo’s nose during an upcoming surgery.
Before heading to the operating room on April 21, Alex prayed with Leo and read to him from the Bible.
Alex carried Leo into the operating room before his surgery at Shriners.
Leo lay on the operating table as Dr. Ehrlichman prepared the area around his face so he could release compressed tissue and repair his nose.
Dr. Ehrlichman would later say he was “very, very happy” about how the surgery went.
As Leo woke up after surgery, Alex stroked his head and told him how strong he was. “I’m proud of you,” Alex said softly. “I’m proud of you, Leo.”