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Fighting for a bright future

Racheal Mofya was in the U.S. to study. Then she took an early Metrolink train home one fateful day.

October 07, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Recently, Racheal Mofya opened an eye. She squeezed a doctor's hand. Bedside visitors saw her wiggle her toes.

She has not regained consciousness since the deadly Metrolink crash on Sept. 12, which left her with a fractured skull, a broken ankle, a dislocated hip, third-degree burns, and lacerations on her face and one of her legs.

But "we gain little increments of hope," said Pat Abruzzese. He and his wife, Joanne, have spent hour after hour by Mofya's side in the intensive care unit at County-USC Medical Center.

Mofya, 27, an exchange student from Zambia, had been living in the Abruzzeses' Simi Valley home for a year when the crash occurred. That day, she had taken an early train home from her classes downtown. Joanne Abruzzese was at the train station, waiting for her.

Members of Mofya's adopted Simi Valley family have stood by her bedside and prayed for a miracle ever since, joined in spirit by Mofya's large family back home in southern Africa.

One of her older sisters, Martha, who is also studying in the United States, flew in from Minneapolis to join the vigil the day after the crash and has rarely left her room. Another older sister, Agnes, who lives in Zambia, is trying to get a visa and raise money for a plane ticket. The Abruzzeses are helping her.

Both families continue to hope that Mofya will one day awaken and resume the extraordinary journey that took her from her impoverished country to California as one of eight students chosen from 200 for a highly competitive Rotary program.

"I can see she's fighting," Joanne Abruzzese said. "It's not in her personality to give up."

Mofya was close to finishing her business studies at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles, the Abruzzeses said. Her plan was to work for a year in the United States to save some money, then return to Zambia to open a cosmetics business.

Right now, those dreams seem a long way off.

Mofya recently got skin grafts to replace flesh burned in the early moments of the crash. Doctors say she also may need a corneal transplant.

They are reluctant to comment on her long-term prospects for a full recovery until the swelling in her brain subsides more, Joanne Abruzzese said.

If it was fate that led Mofya to Metrolink 111, fate also played a role in bringing her from one of the poorest nations in the world to the Abruzzeses' upscale home.

Pat Abruzzese, finance officer for a Chatsworth cabling company, said he just happened to be in the office of the local Rotary Club one day when he heard the executive director say that they needed a family to host a student from Zambia for a year. On the spot, he offered.

"We didn't put much thought into it," he said. "But I knew we had the room, so I thought, 'Why not?' "

Studious and soft-spoken, Mofya is devoted to her studies, Pat Abruzzese said. She calls the Abruzzeses Mom and Dad and has developed a close bond with their two children, Jaime, 20, and T.J., 16.

"She fit right in with us," said Pat Abruzzese. "She became part of the family."

English is the primary language in Zambia, an independent nation in southern Africa that has a small middle class, widespread AIDS and grinding poverty. Mofya, always proper, spoke "the Queen's English" and corrected her Simi Valley family when they uttered American colloquialisms, Pat Abruzzese said with a laugh.

Mofya is one of six children raised by a grandmother in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, who stepped in after both parents died, one of malaria and the other of a gastrointestinal illness.

Mofya's family had a small farm on the outskirts of Lusaka, a city of 1.2 million. Mofya is ambitious, viewing her stay in the United States as an opportunity not only to open her own business but to create jobs for other Zambians, Pat Abruzzese said.

She crammed courses that normally take 18 months into one year, and she got straight A's, he said.

"She was competitive. She knew she had been given a chance and wanted to make the best of it."

Their life together soon had its routines. Mofya would be up early every morning, waiting for Pat Abruzzese to take her to the Simi Valley Metrolink station. She rode the commuter line to and from her Los Angeles campus every week day, he said.

"She'd be at the bottom of the stairs and say, 'Dad, I'm ready. Let's go,' " he said.

After each long day at school, she returned to Simi Valley around 7 p.m. Joanne Abruzzese always fetched her at the station.

But Mofya also carved out her own territory. After joining a singles group sponsored by the family's church, she became friends with dozens of local young people, the Abruzzeses said.

On Sept. 12, Mofya phoned home to say she was taking an earlier train because she had plans. Joanne Abruzzese was waiting for her at the Simi Valley station when she got word of the crash.

The Abruzzeses spent the next 12 hours calling hospitals and combing lists of the injured. Eventually, they joined the other frantic families gathered at Chatsworth High School.

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