CHRISTINE NAKATO’S TRANSFORMATION
At age 20, Nakato was doused in battery acid by her partner’s jealous ex-girlfriend at her home in rural Uganda. The results of the attack were devastating — Nakato suffered from second- and third-degree burns on nearly 40 percent of her body and was left unable to see out of her left eye. At a Ugandan hospital, Nakato was given hope within the tragedy when doctors informed her that she was pregnant.
After the birth of her daughter, Tianna, Nakato continued her life in Uganda — but without access to quality burn treatment care. Her severe scars limited her mobility, and Nakato soon developed severe social anxiety, giving up on her career as a hairstylist and confining herself to her home out of fear of being mocked or assaulted again. The story of her incident touched clinical psychologist Angie Vredeveld, who reached out to the Grossman Burn Foundation — the nonprofit partner of the Grossman Burn Center. They were eager to help Nakato and, within a short six months, raised enough funds and secured the necessary travel documents to get Nakato to the United States for treatment.
“Our thought was that through helping Christine we would not only improve her quality of life and give her back some of what was taken from her, but also help people put a face to violence against women,” said Dr. Peter H. Grossman.
Since arriving in the U.S., Nakato has lived in Thousand Oaks with the family of the Grossman Burn Foundation’s executive director, Marcus Whithorne, under the care of Whithorne’s mother Laura Addis, a retired nurse. Grossman treated Whithorne after he was burned on his left arm as a child — an experience that quickly helped Whithorne establish a connection with Nakato.
“With burn survivors, scars mean a lot. It’s what we share in common,” Whithorne said. “The fact that right off the bat I was able to show Christine my scars and tell her that these are the doctors that saved my hand got us off to a great start.”
Grossman performed the first round of medical procedures in April, including skin grafts to Nakato’s upper and lower lips, nasal reconstructive work to realign her nose, and a chest Z-plasty to improve her upper body functionality and mobility. A month later, she was sent on a Grossman Burn Foundation-sponsored trip to Oakland where Steven Young, an ocularist, created a mold of her nonfunctioning left eye. Then came additional procedures to enhance the symmetry of Nakato’s face — laser work, lip adjustments and a neck Z-plasty — and one month later, Dr. Mark Baskin of Baskin Eye Aesthetics performed reconstructive surgery on her lower left eyelid.
While Whithorne’s primary role was to serve as a liaison between Nakato and the medical staff, he was moved by her story and wanted to be more than just another staff member for her during this time. Throughout her stay, he and his fiancé, Danielle Maina, spent time with Nakato, finding out that she loves Chris Brown and Usher, treating her to Ugandan-style feasts — complete with goat meat, matooke, samosas and chapoti — and even surprising her with a pair of ripped jeans similar to a pair of Maina’s that she loved.
“Danielle and I are close to Christine in age, and we really just wanted to be friends to her more than anything else,” he explained. “We wanted her to know that she has people that care about her here.”
In August, Nakato was given cosmetic facial tattooing by permanent makeup artist Ruth Swissa to help restore some of her more subtle facial features. She also returned to Oakland to receive her transformative prosthetic eye from Young.
“It was mind boggling to see,” said Whithorne, who accompanied Nakato on the trip. “He handcrafted and hand painted it so that it matched the exact color and pigment of her existing eye … he even lays small pieces of red thread to imitate the little lines of red veins that we have on our eyes.”
In September, Nakato had her final set of surgeries on her arms and neck with Grossman, and in early October, she saw Baskin for a second time to address the remaining scar tissue on her left eyelid. Throughout her stay, Nakato was offered biweekly English lessons and weekly therapy sessions, along with visits from local Ugandan community members — a testament to the Grossman Burn Foundation’s emphasis on comprehensive care. Nakato is set to return to Uganda in November, and the Grossman Burn Foundation is working to ensure that she’ll be connected with local organizations that will continue to assist her there. Since her arrival in the U.S. nearly one year ago, much has changed for Nakato: she will now be able to lift her daughter up above her head, she’s regained hope for opening her own clothing shop, and she no longer feels the need to hide her face from the world.
“To have her feel confident enough to not wear the headscarf — that was it. That was the transformation that I’d always hoped to see out of her,” Whithorne said.