"He had this dynamic smile," Zlotolow said. "And he was with some other little kids. He wore pajama bottoms, and he had these wooden crutches with no rubber tips, and they were broken."
Doctors recommended that Lansana's leg be amputated. Zlotolow thought that a specialist might be able to reconstruct the mangled leg, despite the destruction of the bone between Lansana's right knee and ankle.
But even more importantly, through an interpreter, Lansana said to Zlotolow: "I want to go where you are from."
The words were perfectly aimed at a man described by acquaintances as a doctor with a heart of gold. "All of a sudden, something came to me," Zlotolow said. "The people I knew from Sloan-Kettering came to mind, my father, my family. You do the right thing. And I knew that I would have all this support, and I guess I just said, 'This kid, he needs help. He won't make it here.'"
As he prepared to return to New York from the horrors of Sierra Leone's refugee camps, Zlotolow struggled to find a way to get Lansana out, too. Among the references Zlotolow listed in his paperwork on behalf of Lansana was Muhammed Ali, a childhood friend from Louisville, Ky. A Methodist missionary couple offered to help get a visa for Lansana.
In New York, Cohen got a telephone call as Zlotolow passed through London on his way back to Manhattan. Cohen had told Zlotolow just before he had left for Sierra Leone that she thought it was time for them to end their live-in relationship. But Zlotolow wanted to enlist her in his new mission.
Cohen was taken aback by the conversation. "He said, 'Well, there is this little boy and we are going to try to get him out of the country, and he needs an operation for a leg.' And that was really it. Then he said, 'I'll be home tomorrow.'"
They were hardly the words of a dissolving relationship.
Early in 2002, in Greenwich Village, the spiritual home of one of Zlotolow's idols, Bob Dylan, Lansana was roaming the streets with Zlotolow. Lansana had arrived by airplane in New York after his visa had been approved. Cohen agreed to help with the boy's adjustment to America. "The closest I could come to [describing his situation] would be like my landing on Mars and trying to find my way. And he was this little boy who landed in Manhattan."
"The first night that I put him to bed, he just was staring at me. And I realized he probably had never slept alone in a room before. As I was making the bed, I said, 'Do you want me to lie down?' And he nodded, and I lay down next to him. And he put his arms around me and passed out, just fell asleep. And I realized he was terrified. He was just this sweet little boy who was terrified."
Zlotolow sought treatment for the boy's leg, adamant that it be saved from amputation if possible. On the recommendation of other doctors, he took Lansana to Dr. Robert Rozbruch, director of the Institute for Limb Lengthening and Reconstruction at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery.
"His leg was probably about six inches short," Rozbruch said. "And it was about 45 degrees angled inward. And then the X-ray showed that he was missing the bottom half of his tibia, or leg bone, that is also the top part of the ankle. So, he had lost his ankle in the process as well."