Lydia Dawson was just 5 months old on the day her life was changed forever.
The baby lay cradled in her 13-year-old mother's arms as she prepared the family meal in their tiny village in western Ethiopia. Without warning, the teenage mother suffered a seizure and accidentally dropped Lydia into the open fire.
Precious seconds passed before the baby's tortured screams brought her father running to pull her from the flames.
Lydia's family lived in a place so remote and so primitive that the nearest medical care was 100 miles away. By the time the terrified family reached the hospital — five days later — Lydia's legs were so badly infected they had to be amputated, one above and one just below the knee.
Lydia's parents — too poor and too scared to remain far from home for very long — made the wrenching choice to leave Lydia at the hospital to be raised by American missionaries.
She was only a baby and already her life was marked by tragic loss.
But Lydia's childhood tragedies were followed by a series of miraculous events that carried her from the abject poverty of rural Africa to a comfortable in the United States. She is now a social worker in Seattle, married and raising a family of her own.
At 38, she recently decided to return to Ethiopia to find the mother she lost so long ago.
A Chance Encounter
After the accident that took her legs, Lydia spent the next four years in the hospital. There was no place else for her to go.
The staff — mostly made up of American missionaries — cared for her and taught her English. Mary Nell Harper, one of the nurses, remembers Lydia as a beautiful child who made everyone laugh.
"She was loved," says Harper. "And when somebody's loved, they really manage."
Lydia did indeed manage, learning to crawl instead of walk, barely noticing how different she was from everyone else around her.
A photographer, passing through, snapped a picture of the little girl with no legs for an article about Africa that later appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.
It was just a chance encounter, and the picture in the magazine was a tiny one on an inside page, but that little picture moved a group of strangers in the United States to change Lydia's life.
The Kindness of Strangers
The first donation came from a Philadelphia maker of artificial limbs. He was so moved by the little girl's plight that he offered to make a set of prosthetic legs for her. The ability to walk on her own gave Lydia hope for an independent future.
A group of women from a Presbyterian church in New Jersey also saw the photograph and decided to finance a first-class education for Lydia. Together with Nurse Harper, they sent her to an exclusive boarding school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Later they sent her to college in the United States.
These were, perhaps, small acts of charity; but for Lydia, it was nothing short of another miracle.
Lydia got straight A's in school and maintained a remarkably positive attitude.
"I think I had everything," she says. "I really did."
But Lydia's difficult times were not over.
"The only thing I experienced that was negative," she says, "would be the pain… you know, when I grew up and when my legs hurt. That period was no fun."
The pain came because Lydia's bones grew faster than the flesh around them. So the amputation had to essentially be redone every year until she was 16.
'Wouldn't Trade My Life for Anything'