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COLUMN ONE

Two lives emerged from the ashes

She was a bored U.S. homemaker who felt lost in China. A charred baby would change that.

December 12, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Lisa Misraje Bentley watches the boy in the No. 8 jersey as he careens across the soccer field and she marvels. His lower face a mask of scar tissue, his left arm gone at the elbow, the toes on his left foot missing, he zigzags along the green grass in defiance of his disabilities.

"Isn't he happy?" she says. "Look at the joy coming out of him!"

Bentley knows the boy probably should not be alive. Five years ago, he was left for dead in a cornfield, his tiny body so ravaged by fire that the villagers who found him thought he looked more like a charred log than a 6-week-old baby.

Back then, Bentley was new to China. She had come begrudgingly with her four children, following her husband, John, from Washington state. Together, the couple founded a Christian orphanage for special-needs children -- those most at risk in the Chinese child welfare system, which often lacks the resources to meet the demands of the disabled.

They wanted to help the undesirables. And when Bentley first saw the abandoned baby, gasping for breath inside a hospital incubator, she knew she had found perhaps the most undesirable one of all.

What happened next would test the limits of modern medicine and put Bentley in conflict with local customs, laws, national bureaucracies and even her own family.

Who could have predicted the impact of one small life in China on a bored suburban homemaker from the Pacific Northwest?

Six years ago, Bentley sat in her four-bedroom home in Vancouver, Wash., and felt like crying. As a stay-at-home mother, she lived the good life: Her husband was a successful lawyer. She was pregnant with her fourth child. There was the minivan and the sports car. Yet she was miserable.

"I thought, 'If this is my life, this stinks,' " she says.

Then came an opportunity. John always had a fascination with China, and had seen his brother start a Christian orphanage in Africa. He wanted to start one in Beijing.

Assured financial backing for one year by a Christian philanthropist, John quit his job and prepared for the journey. Suddenly, the support fell through, but John still wanted to go.

Bentley wasn't so sure. She wanted adventure, but China was like another planet. She had no Chinese language skills, and had always had a Woody Allen-like obsession with hygiene. China was no place to take four young children.

"I thought John was insane," she says. "But I said, 'OK, three months.' Then I figured I'd raise hell and we'd come back."

The family's first image of China didn't help. As they landed in Beijing, Bentley's 8-year-old daughter, Emily, looked out the plane window and remarked, "It looks like a trash can."

The couple settled in Langfang, a rural town an hour outside Beijing, and rented a concrete-block home without heat. Bentley remained a mother on guard, listening for the rats that scampered inside the building walls. Both she and John took jobs at a foreign-run orphanage.

No matter how hard she tried to comprehend the culture, China remained mysterious. She had run-ins with local hospital staff and officials, who considered her another pushy American. Bentley didn't fit the image of a Christian aid worker. She's hip and outspoken, likes '60s clothing, and doesn't come on strong with Bible-speak.

She didn't connect here, and she wanted to go home.

The ghastly discovery came on a dreary March day in 2002: A badly burned baby was found in a field. A cluster of curious villagers encircled the infant as he wailed in agony.

The baby's bright yellow jumper was soaked with blood and body fluids. Someone had carefully tucked a 10-yuan note -- less than $2 -- into his pocket.

One by one, the crowd drifted away. What could be done? The baby was sure to die. Except one old man. He saw that the infant's head had been shaved and a bandage remained where an IV had been inserted.

A desperate mother had no doubt tried to save this child and then, in defeat, abandoned him. The old man understood why: This no longer looked like a baby. He reached down. The infant was so charred that ashes fell when he tried to lift its left arm. The little hand was blackened, clenched.

The old man gathered up the baby and rode his bike to a local government office. He left the infant on the doorstep.

The boy was rushed to a hospital, diagnosed with third-degree burns over 70% of his body. The orphanage was notified.

When Bentley arrived, she looked down inside the incubator. What she saw "grabbed me by my heart." The baby wailed in agony as he tried to suck his badly burned thumb -- his wounds so deep Bentley could see muscle, tendon and bone.

"This child had no mom, nobody pulling for him," she says.

Just then, Bentley recalls, the baby's eyes flickered. He looked right at her, expectantly, as if to say, "Are you my mother?"

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