‘I raised Dh220,000 to give my boy a new face.’
Standing at the side of the road, holding on to his father’s hand, the little boy couldn’t stop giggling. With a mixture of excitement and fear, he pulled his dad closer to the battle tank I was driving. We’d stopped right outside the little boy’s house in Laktasi, a town in Bosnia, and now he wanted to touch one of the three machines in our convey. Once he’d placed his fingers on the side of the tank, he came running up to me. He gave me a hug and then pointed at a football. I realised he wanted me to play, and so joined him for a kick about in his back garden. Stefan Milos was four years old and grinning so much that for a moment I just saw the joy in his expression and not the fact that his face was malformed – his eyes were far apart, his nose was almost nonexistent and his nostrils flared.
I’d met Stefan’s dad, Milos, two months earlier through the Ministry of Defence where I was an army staff sergeant on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. We’d become good friends and one day Milos had invited me to his house to meet his son and the family.
Stefan had been born with a facial cleft – a rare congenital anomaly. Lacking the right medical attention in his home country of Bosnia, the congenital condition had been left untreated and now the teeth on his upper jaw were misaligned, his nostrils were blocked, which forced him to breathe though his mouth, and his eyes were set so far apart that it was difficult for him to see what was in front of him.
Wanting to give the kid a nice surprise, I’d decided to take my troop with me and we had arrived in the small tanks – which immediately fascinated Stefan.
The boy didn’t speak any English, but I spoke a little Bosnian as I’d been there for more than two years, off and on. We didn’t need a language in common and realising what he’d been through so far in his short life, I couldn’t imagine anything so heartbreaking happening to my children.
But Stefan had no idea he was different, and that was brilliant. He was so innocent and lovable. Although we’d just met, he quickly climbed up into the tank with me and was curious about everything in it.
Although he was happy, I could see what lay ahead for the boy – health problems because of his eyes and nose, bullying because of his looks... Why should such a kind, fun-loving boy have to go through so much? It just didn’t seem fair. Right then I decided I’d do all that I could to help him. I didn’t
Stefan had no idea he was different – that was brilliant. He was so innocent and lovable
– somehow we could understand each other. I was a father, so maybe that’s why. I had two sons back home, Harry, was six, and Toby, five, from a past relationship. Looking at little Stefan want the little boy ever to lose his spark. So as soon as I got back to base I talked to a doctor I knew in the UK who said he would need to see a CT scan of Stefan’s face before committing to surgery. I then suggested that Milos, 34, take him for a scan locally and explained how I was trying to arrange surgery in the UK.
The scan found that the boy’s airways were blocked by the deformation and he could only breathe through his mouth. There were also holes in his skull near the eyes – a rare result of the facial cleft.
The doctors in Bosnia who carried out the scan said that over the years the cleft would worsen, constricting
his airways and increasing his risk of choking. Stefan’s mother Slavenka couldn’t hold back the tears when she heard the prognosis.
Of course, Slavenka, 26, wanted to help her son, but she didn’t know who to approach or what to do. Bosnia was still facing uncertain times due to a war and had very few hospitals that could offer the specialised care and treatment that Stefan required. “We want to do all that we can to help Stefan, but don’t know who to turn to for help,” Milos told me.
Slavenka, a homemaker, and Stefan’s seven-year-sister Nada pampered and protected him so much – running to help him up when he tripped and fell because he couldn’t see straight, and hugging and kissing him often.
I had to help. It wasn’t just about wanting to help the boy. I wanted to do something for the family, who were so honest, humble, genuine and loving. Although they didn’t have a lot of money they were more generous than a lot of wealthy people I’d met.
My doctor friend in the UK looked at Stefan’s scan reports and said his condition could be improved through surgery. That was a big step forward. I then started making some enquiries and found that surgery – which would help aesthetically as well as clear his airways – could be done in Paris, but the cost was huge – around Dh190,000, something we couldn’t afford.
Googling, I found the name of a surgeon who worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Dr David Dunaway. I emailed him to ask if he would consider helping Stefan. To my amazement, he said he would help, and he would offer his time for free.
I just had to get Stefan there. It was going to cost £15,000 (Dh93,000) in
Men who had been at war for years put on a united front for Stefan - it was an incredible achievement
flights, accommodation and to cover essential hospital costs. So I vowed to raise the money somehow.
I organised a charity game of football between Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, raising €6,000 (around Dh30,000). They’d been at war for years, but put on a united front for Stefan. It was an incredible feeling and there was a sense of achievement after the charity match was over.
I’d seen the war, the trauma it can inflict on the local people, and now to see at least part of the warring factions join hands for this little boy was truly incredible. The knock-on effect was that they had an arms amnesty and the groups handed over 156 rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and dozens of hand grenades that people had stored in their houses and now felt were no longer needed.
I also organised various charity events including a 10-mile pull of a Landrover, charity babrbecues and raised around £14,000.
Over the next five months we raised thousands more by way of garden parties and coffee mornings.
I came home to Dorset, England, in June 2003 and asked my local paper to help my appeal. Donations poured in – I was amazed by the generosity of readers and their kind messages. It was obvious that I wasn’t the only one touched by Stefan’s story and character.
He needed a series of three procedures – one to remove and replace his teeth to realign his upper jaw, another to reconstruct his nose and a third to reconstruct his skull to bring his eyes closer.
In August, Stefan’s mum and aunt, Dzejna, came with him to London for the initial operation and his dad and sister, Nada, came for the major surgery.
A few days before the operation his family to Dorset and met my sons, Harry and Toby. Straight away the boys
got on, going outside to play football together. During the visit – Milos and I – prepared him for the operation, telling him that he would be able to see and breathe much better after surgery. But Stefan was not worried or even apprehensive. He was his usual happy self, laughing and playing.
I was by Stefan’s side through the operation. What I found amazing was that Stefan never showed any nerves, though I was in pieces.
In a 12-hour-long operation, part of Stefan’s face was cut in half, his eyes moved closer together and a nose constructed out of cartilage taken from one of his ribs. I was extremely worried and was hoping and praying it would go off well. Nightmares that he might lose his eyesight or that the doctors might cut his brain by mistake left me extremely stressed out.
He had to keep his eyes and face bandaged for four days, and he didn’t complain once. When his bandages were removed, we all gasped.
His eyes were closer and he had a proper nose. Overwhelmed by emotion, Slavenka was weeping but Stefan was brave as usual. “I’m fine. Now you just relax,” he told his mother.
He had to remain in hospital only for a week after which the doctors said he could return to his home in Laktasi in Bosnia but would need to return for follow-up check-ups every month for six months.
However, the doctor warned us it wasn’t over. Ten years later Stefan would need follow-up surgery – as his facial plates grew – to improve his appearance and help his breathing.
“I promise I’ll get Stefan back here in 10 years,’’ I told his family when it was time for them to leave.
Stefan returned to Bosnia, and a year later I left the army in late 2004. Inspired by the medical care Stefan had received at Great Ormond Street, I decided to become a paramedic.
I met Cara Ingram, 37, while training and we married the same year. I told her all about Stefan, and even after we had two daughters – Freya, seven, and Lili, five – I talked about him all the time. “We want to meet the boy Daddy helped!’’ our daughters used to say as they were growing up.
I kept in touch with Stefan’s family – speaking to them on Skype and watching Stefan grow into a teenager.
Stefan was shy but he’d play me songs on his accordion or send me links to his Youtube videos. “I’m so proud of you,” I’d tell him and he’d smile.
As the years passed I started fundraising for his next surgery, knowing that this time Stefan’s trip to the UK would cost over £20,000. The surgeon, Dr Dunaway, offered his services for free again, but there were hospital costs, as well as flights, accommodation and visas for the family members.
I felt so bad because at the time I’d broken my leg in sports and couldn’t do any physical challenges to raise money myself. Cara assured me my role as coordinator was just as important.
But I got to about £7,500 and then it seemed like we’d run out of ideas. I just couldn’t find any more contributions.
I spent every spare hour on my computer, sending letters, making phone calls, and organising events. I had a promise to keep and I’d have done anything. I put a little ad in the newspaper saying I was planning to sell my motorbike for the cause and a kind elderly lady who saw it contacted me. “I don’t want you to sell you beloved bike,” she wrote. “I’ve been following what you have been doing from the start. Just tell me how much you need.” I wrote to her about the amount I was hoping to raise and she sent a huge sum – I’m not allowed to disclose it – which helped immensely. “Just tell him that the kind granny sent it,” she said.
I was once again amazed by people’s generosity. Regardless of their own hardships – my local community had been hit by flooding in recent months – people still gave whatever they could.
On April 30 this year, Stefan arrived in the UK. He needed some pre-surgery assessments, before being admitted for surgery on May 3.
I was more nervous than he was; Stefan just wanted it done. He was relaxed and as he lay on the operating table to be put under anaesthetic, he smiled and said, “I’m going to sleep now!” The operation lasted about four hours and involved replacing some of
Stefan is always telling everyone how I have changed his life but he has totally changed mine
the metalwork that had been inserted into Stefan’s face in his first operation 10 years previously. It had shifted slightly as his skull had grown and changed over time.
The surgeons also corrected the shape of Stefan’s nose doing a cartilage graft and nasal reconstruction
When Stefan woke up, he was groggy but relieved that it was over. “I’m feeling good. It helped that it was with Dr Dunaway again because I knew I was in safe hands,” he said, beaming with joy.
Once he’d been discharged four days later, he and his family came to meet Cara and my daughters.
The girls were so excited and after playing on the Wii, we went to the beach for ice cream.
I wanted to build memories with Stefan so his trip wouldn’t just be about the surgery. I bought him a mini helicopter, my company, Asda, donated an iPad, and a neighbour gave him a hamper full of goodies.
“This operation is the best thing that could have happened to Stefan. We wanted him to have this surgery before he starts this next stage of his life – secondary school,” Slavenka said.
The next day, it was time for Stefan to return home. At the airport, we were both emotional. Our journey had started 10 years ago – in that time, Stefan had become a young man. He cried as we hugged goodbye.
“Thank you. I love you,’’ he said. “I feel blessed to have met you and will be your friend forever.”
I smiled – he’s another son to me. He’s never once moaned or complained – not as a four-year-old, and not as a 14-year-old.
Never once have I heard him say anything negative.
He may need further surgery on his nose and to correct the roof of his mouth, one day and when that day comes, I’ll be here to support him.
Stefan is a wonderful boy. He studies hard and is ambitious – it’s humbling to be in his presence. He’s in year 12 at school now. His dream is to pursue a career in music and I’m sure he will make it.
Recently, Milos and Slaveka asked me if I’d be Stefan’s godfather. It might seem like a small gesture, but in the past 200 years of Stefan’s family history, never has the role of a godfather been filled by anyone outside the family. In Bosnian culture it is unheard of. But both insisted. Of course, I said yes and will be flying out later this year.
Stefan’s always telling everyone how I changed his life – but he has changed mine. I’m glad I was able to provide him with the same opportunities as every other child his age.
Sister Nada and Mum Slavenka protected and pampered Stefan
Stefan with Dr David Dunaway, the man who changed his life
Stefan’s mum was by his side for both operations
Cara and my daughters Freya and Lili were keen to meet Stefan
Stefan would love to pursue a career in music – I’m sure he’ll make it
Stefan is like a son to me and I’ll be proud to be his godfather
Our families have a special bond