Kenyan teen to undergo surgery to save her sight

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A 14-year-old girl from Kenya is hoping that doctors at the University of Virginia can save her sight when she undergoes surgery on Wednesday.

Mercy Nderitu was diagnosed in Kenya with a tumor wrapped around her optic nerve. The prognosis was dire. She would lose her sight and possibly her life without treatment. Doctors there said they couldn’t operate.

Thanks to her uncle, who lives in Charlottesville, and a local attorney who helped bring her here, she now has hope for a cure.

"I had frequent headaches. I couldn't see clearly,” said Nderitu, a soft-spoken eighth grader who arrived for an interview wearing a brightly-colored dress and with pink streaks dyed in her long braids.

Her symptoms started in the fall, with headaches and nausea. Soon after, Nderitu says, she was too sick to attend school as the tumor created pressure behind her eye and pushed it out of the socket.

Thousands of miles away, in Charlottesville, her uncle, Peter Chege, a pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Temple in Barboursville, was concerned about the news and traveled to Kenya to see her.

"I found Mercy in the state that you see, her eye bulging out about half an inch," he said.

Chege has financially supported Nderitu's family since her father died when she was a baby.

"As a first born, I have a cultural responsibility to take care of my siblings and also my parents," Chege explained.

Over the years, he’s had help from local attorney and fellow pastor G. Raye Jones. The two men met at church after Chege arrived in Charlottesville in 2004 and bonded over their Christian faith. Jones has traveled to Kenya with Chege on mission trips, and on one of those trips, he learned about Nderitu growing up without her father.

"My father left home when I was six, so that connected pretty quick,” he said. “If you don't have a daddy to take care of you, it's tough."

Jones and his wife began financially supporting Nderitu and her family. When Chege told him about Nderitu's health problem, Jones paid for Chege to return to Kenya with instructions.

"Whatever you do, don't come back without Mercy,’” Jones told him. “I said, ‘You get her back here, and we'll take care of her.’"

Nderitu's mother couldn't get a U.S. travel visa in time, so in January, Nderitu traveled to Charlottesville with her grandfather. She went to see specialists at UVA who thought they could help her, but initially, there was a catch.

"She is not my child, therefore she cannot be on my insurance,” Chege said. “The finances became an obstacle."

The initial quote for her care was about $300,000.

"I'll never make that kind of money," Chege said.

That's when Jones stepped into action, reaching out to one of his former UVA professors, Larry Sabato.

Jones says the well-known political analyst helped navigate the process with the medical center, and soon things were looking up for Nderitu.

Chege got temporary legal custody of her, and UVA reduced the cost of the surgery to $35,000.

Jones has started a fundraiser through Faith Baptist Church, where he is a pastor. He hopes to raise at least that sum since her follow-up care will likely add to that amount.

"The Lord will bless, she will be taken care of, we will raise these funds, and we're just very thankful for everybody," he said.

Nderitu says she, too, trusts in God, but she's also grateful to Jones for his support.

"I am so happy about him,” she said. “I love him so much."

For information about a GoFundMe to help with Nderitu's surgery costs, click on the link in the Related Links box.

Donations may also be sent directly to Faith Baptist Church, P.O. Box 6343, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22906. Please reference in check memo “Relief Fund.”

Part two of this story featuring Nderitu's surgeon airs Tuesday on CBS19 News at 6 p.m.

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