Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dream for better life cut short

By Judy L. Randall.

Boimah Cooper, the 6-year-old Liberian boy who was nearly crippled by tuberculosis and came to America for a life-saving spinal operation, capturing the heart of Staten Island in the process, died last night, said Pat Lockhart, the teacher who hoped to adopt him.

"It is so painful, so painful," sobbed Ms. Lockhart, as she spoke from New York University Medical Center, where Boimah underwent a nearly 12-hour operation on Monday to correct a spinal deformity brought on by TB, which also ravaged his lungs, making it difficult for him to walk and breathe. "I loved that little boy. I miss him so much."

Before the operation, Boimah's chief surgeon, Dr. Baron Lonner, told the Advance that he was "at risk of paralysis with or without" the surgery.

"He's high-risk," Ms. Lockhart acknowledged earlier this week, "but everyone points to how resilient he is."

But hope for Boimah's recovery began to fade yesterday when he fell gravely ill.


"The surgery was successful," said Ms. Lockhart, who kept a round-the-clock vigil by Boimah's bedside. "But due to lung damage from his long-term, untreated TB, there were complications. His heart just stopped. His body did not respond to resuscitation in enough time. As a result of the lack of oxygen to his brain, the hospital had declared him brain-dead. He was on life support but his body was unable to function."

Boimah's TB had gone untreated for years in his war-torn African homeland, where Ms. Lockhart had found him lying under a tree on a rural road crying and malnourished during a humanitarian mission she undertook there last spring. A teacher at PS 57 in Clifton, home to a large number of Liberian-born students, she became determined to get Boimah the care he so desperately needed.

Boimah's mother and father were killed during the ongoing civil warfare in Liberia, and he was living with his grandfather. Ms. Lockhart secured his grandfather's OK to bring Boimah to the United States for medical treatment, and overcame a mountain of red tape on both sides of the Atlantic to get him here and get him care.

Not long ago, she also secured the grandfather's consent to adopt Boimah, who called her "Mommy" and had lived with her in her modest Dongan Hills apartment since his arrival last July.

"The happiness he brought not only to me, but to all of Staten Island, to everyone he met, was just unbelievable," said Ms. Lockhart, a 2001 Advance Woman of Achievement. "He made a difference in so many people's lives. All of Staten Island welcomed him with open arms, and he had the time of his life on Staten Island. Every day on Staten Island was like Disneyland to him."


Not only did Boimah love the Staten Island Yankees, he played on a team for disabled youngsters with the Great Kills Little League. A kindergartner at PS 57, he was also a big fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, having met the mayor at the Woman of Achievement luncheon last November and following him in the news ever since.

Ms. Lockhart praised Boimah's surgical team, and said "they have agreed to work with me on establishing a clinic in Boimah's name, back in Liberia, to help other children who are suffering as he suffered."

Members of Staten Island's Liberian community, who had embraced Boimah, met last night in the West Brighton home of Liberian Community Association leader George Curtis to discuss raising funds for funeral arrangements for him on Staten Island, with burial in Liberia. No plans have been finalized.

Ms. Lockhart said she will make the trip to Africa with Boimah.

"Boimah and I planned to go back together," Ms. Lockhart said. "We had plans to return in two years. We were going to bring medical supplies with us, and other needed items. We were going to try to arrange for a playground to be built in his village. That was our dream. I'm going to keep that dream."