Gifted young woman gets life-saving help, touches hearts
DENVER – When 9NEWS met again on a sunny June day, after she has she had spent six months here in Colorado, we found that Prudence Mahbena had changed.
“People in Denver have a heart, a good heart,” Mahbena said.
Mahbena was 23 years old when she came to Denver on a chilly day in January. During her first week here, she offered a song to an audience gathered to help her and others in Africa like her. After her rendition of Amazing Grace earned a standing ovation, she thanked the crowd.
“This is a special moment for me because I know my life is going to be saved,” she told them.
Mahbena grew up in Zimbabwe, an impoverished country where life is even harder for people with disabilities. When she was born with a debilitating condition, much of her family abandoned her. One of her grandmothers told her mother not to breast feed her and leave her to die. Her other grandmother saved her, despite the social stigma.
“They are so much superstitious,” Mahbena said about many people in Zimbabwe. “Some think that it’s a curse when you’re born with a disability. Some think that someone was involved with witchcraft.”
Recently, the folks at Children’s Hospital Colorado offered to help Mahbena. She accepted and came to Colorado for major surgery.
“I don’t know what to expect. I can’t even imagine myself sitting up straight,” Mahbena said before the surgery.
Mahbena underwent two big operations intended to vastly improve her life, and hopefully, even her beautiful singing voice. She is lead singer of her band at the King George VI school in Zimbabwe for kids with disabilities. The eight band members perform with a message about their lives. They call their band Liyana, which means “rain.”
“In Africa we love rain because it’s a blessing. We have a dry land so whenever we get rain we’re like, ‘Yes!'” Mahbena explained.
The surgeons at Children’s Hospital worked to straighten out Mahbena’s spine. It was badly twisted by kyphoscoliosis, and her back was beginning to crush her. They also worked to better position her hips which were made stiff by another condition she was born with called arthrogryposis.
“Optimizing her sitting position is crucial,” Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mark Erickson said. “If it becomes to painful to sit because of her advanced scoliosis then eventually she won’t want to sit because it hurts too bad. And then if she doesn’t sit, her only other choice is to lie down.”
Weeks after surgery, Erickson was pleased with Mahbena’s progress. He pointed to x-rays taken before and after the surgeries. They showed she had several more inches of room in her abdomen now that her spine was straight.
At this check-up appointment, Mahbena was eager to know how sitting up straight for the first time in many years would help her performance, but she was also concerned. Whenever she tried to sing, she coughed. She didn’t have much energy. Her recovery would be painful and would take many months. For the first time in her life, her music was gone.
“It’s not only trying to sing and coughing, but it’s also the spirit. I’m not yet in the singing motion yet. I just don’t feel like singing,” Mahbena said with a sigh.
Since she couldn’t bring the music to them, they brought it to her. Weeks later, on her 24th birthday, her new friends in Denver surprised her with a party at Strings Restaurant in Denver.
“It’s unbelievable! ” Mahbena exclaimed after the group sang Happy Birthday. It was a gathering of the many community members who came together to improve her life: those who donated time, money and services. The owner of Sage Hospitality gave Mahbena a free place to stay in a suite at one of the company’s hotels. The owners of Metro Taxi offered her free transportation in their wheelchair-accessible taxi vans. Centura Home Health Care donated the services of a physical therapist after her surgeries. When the folks at the Shelby American Auto Museum in Boulder learned one of her dreams was to ride fast in a race car, they organized the trip in a 1965 Shelby Cobra.
“We wanted her to have a complete American experience,” museum President Steve Volk said.
After that short trip in a speedy convertible, Mahbena didn’t feel much like going back to her own ride.
“It’s going to be too slow for me!” she joked about her wheelchair.
But she did want to get back to her mission. Even though she wasn’t ready to sing her message, she could speak it. At the Metropolitan State College of Denver, she took questions from an audience who came come to see an award-winning documentary about her life called “Music by Prudence.” One student asked her to share her thoughts for anyone who is thinking of giving up on their life.
“We have to first think about how many people suffer in life. You must never let yourself think that you are the only person who suffers,” Mahbena replied. “If you were given hands and legs and the brain to think, then why should you cry? And if you can be able to have faith, just that little faith, why should you cry? There is a lot, a lot, that can put you down, but don’t allow it.”
That positive attitude has impressed the man who has become one of her best friends in Denver. Noel Cunningham is a Denver restaurateur who looked after Mahbena during her time in Colorado and gathered support.
“I love connecting people. That’s what I enjoy, and when I connect people with Prudence my line to them is, ‘I’m giving you a gift. I’m giving you a gift by meeting this girl,'” Cunningham said.
Many gave gifts in return, including a new electric wheelchair.
“I have dignity in my electric wheelchair. When I can move around on my own I feel more independent,” Mahbena said.
Val and Dennis Meyer paid for her new wheelchair through their foundation in remembrance of their daughter who was killed by a drunk driver.
“Our daughter Ali, who died in 2002, we know right now is as happy as can be in heaven looking down at Prudence in her wheelchair,” Dennis Meyer said.
Cunningham organized another documentary screening to raise the funds to build Mahbena her own wheelchair-accessible house when she returns to Zimbabwe.
Mahbena told us she will return changed.
“My sitting position is very different, and my breathing system is better,” Mahbena said.
After spending half a year here in Colorado, she returned home in late June with new strength and new encouragement to keep sharing her music and message.
“Disability does not mean inability. People should not look at our appearance and then judge. People should not judge a book by its cover. You never know what’s inside. It might be great,” Mahbena said.
To find out more about how to help Mahbena and kids like her at the King George VI school in Zimbabwe, visit www.kinggeorge6.org/Home. To see the Academy Award-winning documentary about her, visit www.musicbyprudence.com.
(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)