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January 31, 2013

Liberian Refugee Gets New Face After Devastating Acid Burn

by Linda Ringe

The number of acid attacks against women is growing in many South Asian nations. But the crime that causes human skin to melt is not limited to Asia or to women. A Liberian man, who was the victim of a surprise attack almost two years ago, is recovering at a Baltimore, Maryland hospital.

Henry Cole has lost count of how many times he’s been wheeled into surgery. In the last two years, Cole has had more than a dozen procedures. And there are more to come. But he has no complaints.

“The Lord has been paving my way… I always met the good doctors, the good nurses, the good friends," said Cole.

When VOA first met Cole in the spring of 2012, he wore a mask to help heal his facial wounds. But the emotional trauma that led him on this journey was still fresh.
 
"I tell you the truth when I saw myself back in Liberia, I didn’t want to continue living," said Cole, who was the police traffic commander in Monrovia, Liberia.

Surprising tragedy

In April of 2011, he was the victim of an attack that seemed to come out of nowhere, in the middle of the night.

"...only to come out of sleep in shock that some liquid was on my chest and it started to burn," said Cole.

The liquid was acid, poured on by an intruder who is yet to be found.

"The acid entered in my nose, in my mouth and in my ear and then I cried out for help," he remembers.

Cole was taken to a local hospital.
 
"For two weeks there, my condition was getting worse. I was in pain," he said.

Cole credits his faith with his will to live.

"After some time and counseling, I got to know there is a God who watched over us and preserves our lives. So I still have a second chance of living. So I must carry on," he said.

Requesting help

With the help of friends, Cole left Liberia for America, ending up at Johns Hopkins Burn Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

His doctors remember the first time they saw him.

"Literally just walked into the office and asked for help," said Dr. Stephen M. Milner at the Johns Hopkins Burn Center.

"His chest, abdomen, arms were all scarred," said Dr. Leigh Ann Price.

And that began the long process of creating Cole’s new face, a face transformed bit by bit.

"One of the first things we did, in the first operation, was to make him a nostril on the left side," said Milner.

"It's very similar to building a building. And for a burn patient, the canvas is their skin," said Price.

"We covered it with what we call aloe graft, which is cadaver skin. So we can leave this on for a week, and we take it off before it becomes rejected," said Milner. "And then what we used in this case was a material called Integra. It's a synthetic material that mimics the skin.

And then after three weeks we can peel off the top layer and we can take some skin from a different part of his body that isn’t burnt, and we use that to cover."

New face

Between surgeries, Cole recuperates at a friend’s home. He watches African movies and dreams of the day when his daughter will join him in America

Cole already feels blessed, thanks to the doctors who showed him his new face for the first time.

"He was in the tub, and I asked him if he wanted to see his face," said Price.

"As soon as they brought the mirror, and I look at it," said Cole.

"And then he reaches up, and he's got a tear coming out of his eye," said Price.

"I sprung on her and gave her a big hug," said Cole.

"He apparently liked it," said Cole with a smile.

And when he sees his former self, he is confident that he is well on his way.

"I’m not far from being like this [his image in a photo]. I’m very close," he said.
 
But in the meantime, Henry Cole is starting to enjoy his life again.

"Now I’m happy," he said.