Miracles are rare these days, but I’ve seen them.
In a village in rural Liberia, a long and muddy road from anywhere, I came across a grandma, a mom and a baby daughter all afflicted by clubfoot. This is a common birth defect in which one or both feet are grotesquely turned inward.
We don’t see it in the U.S. or Europe because doctors correct it soon after birth, and clubfoot alumni include athletic superstars like Mia Hamm and Kristi Yamaguchi. My mother (a tireless walker with perfectly normal feet) was born with a clubfoot.
Yet here, as in most of the world, kids with clubfoot weren’t treated and grew up as outcasts. About one child in 800 worldwide is born with clubfoot, and in poor countries they are left to hobble on the sides of their feet; unable to work, they may become beggars.
In this village, clubfoot used to be a life sentence: The grandma, Yahin-yee Korwee, never went to school, nor did her daughter, Hannah Cooper, 26. The grandfather abandoned the family when Hannah was born, ashamed that neighbors mocked her as a cripple.
Then Cooper had her own daughter 11 months ago, also with clubfoot (it’s partly hereditary), and her boyfriend left her as well. “You’ve got a crippled child,” she remembered him saying. “I don’t want it.”
Yet this baby had her feet fixed. This is possible with a simple nonsurgical treatment involving a series of plaster casts to guide the foot into the proper position.
This approach, called the Ponseti method, is routine in Western countries and is increasingly available in poor countries as well, through aid groups like MiracleFeet, based in Carrboro, N.C., and Cure, based in Pennsylvania.
I wish that skeptics of humanitarian aid could have seen the baby get care from MiracleFeet and emerge with feet as good as anyone else’s. Now she’ll be able to walk and run, go to school and hold a job, support herself and her country.
And the total cost? Less than $500 for transforming a life.
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey with a university student, Aneri Pattani (who has been busily blogging at nytimes.com/ontheground – check out her posts!). I wanted us to report on clubfoot because it’s an antidote to skepticism about humanitarian aid.
The dirty little secret of foreign aid is that it’s hard. You can build a school, but it’s hard to ensure that teachers will show up. You can build a well, but what happens when the hand pump breaks? You can provide safe birthing kits, but what if a nurse sells them on the black market?
Look, helping people is complicated. But I’m a strong advocate of more aid because sometimes aid is transformative. When properly done, clubfoot treatment is straightforward, succeeds 95 percent of the time and inexpensively changes a life like that of this 11-month-old girl.
“Now she’ll go to school,” said Chesca Colloredo-Mansfeld, executive director of MiracleFeet. “She’s going to stand on her own two feet for the rest of her life.”
Yet most children in poor countries still don’t get clubfoot repaired. The Global Clubfoot Initiative estimates that only 15 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries get good treatment, and it aims to raise that to 70 percent by 2030. Aid groups like MiracleFeet train local health care workers to treat clubfoot, so that over time each country’s own health system can take over diagnosis and treatment. But for now, thousands of children slip through the cracks.
Cooper told us that there was another child in the village with clubfoot, and soon he was brought to us. His name was Henroy, and at age 9 he had never attended school because he has trouble even hobbling. MiracleFeet is now arranging to fix his feet, too.
In another town, Ganta, we saw the toll on families of clubfoot. A small boy, Aria, was being looked after by his grandmother, Nora Glay, because his mother fled rather than raise a child she expected to be permanently disabled. “She was embarrassed,” Glay said of the mother, “and that’s why she abandoned the child.”
But Glay heard on the radio that clubfoot could be repaired. So she borrowed money from friends and took Aria on a weeklong odyssey to get to the Ganta hospital, where Aria’s feet will be corrected over the coming months so that he will be able to walk and run.
A few feet away in the hospital waiting area, Saye Willie acknowledged that he was initially devastated when his son, Bigboy, was born with clubfoot. “I thought it was witchcraft,” the father said. “I accused my wife of taking a bath at night, and I thought somebody put drugs in the water.”
Bigboy, 7, seems a bit overcome at the prospect that his feet will soon be normal, allowing him to walk, run, play soccer. “I want to go to school,” he told me. “I want my feet to be good so I can run, too.”
My friend Michael Elliott, who ran the One Campaign’s fight against global poverty until shortly before his death last year, used to say that we live in an “age of miracles.” I thought of that while in the village with the family suffering from three generations of clubfoot, where the baby now has normal feet.
Oh, and the baby’s name?
Her mom named her Miracle.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.