Saving Levi, Saving Herself: A Chinese-American Love Story

I sat at the restaurant, right by the now-grown boy who used to wear the №8 jersey.

And I marveled.

Now 19, newly graduated from high school, he leaned in toward the teenage girl sitting next to him, asking questions about her tastes and interests, leading the conversation.

He was like a new-generation Humphrey Bogart, confidant, out on the town, in total control of the situation, his movements oozing panache, his smile perfect.

Watching this young man named Levi, I wanted to stand and applaud the untamed power of the human spirit. I have known Levi since he was five years old, watching him play soccer on that ragged field in Beijing, reporting a story about a physically-deformed boy who had been left to die in a cornfield, and about the unfailing efforts of his adopted mother, who had achieved something that bordered on the impossible.

Levi’s life was one that had literally risen from the ashes, with the help of his indomitable savior, Lisa Misraje.

On the sidelines of that youth soccer game in 2007, the woman who would eventually become a dear friend marveled aloud as she watched her child careen across the soccer field.

His lower face was a mask of scar tissue, his left arm gone at the elbow, the toes on his left foot missing as he zigzagged along the grass in defiance of his disabilities.

Lisa saw none of those imperfections.

She saw something beautiful.

“Isn’t he happy?” she said. “Look at the joy coming out of him!”

In 2002, an infant born into poverty in a rural Chinese village was left for dead in a cornfield, his tiny body so ravaged by fire that the neighbors who found him thought he looked more like a charred log than a 6-week-old baby.

Back then, Lisa was new to China. She had come begrudgingly with her four children, following her husband, John. 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.

Lisa had always wanted to help the undesirables.

And when she 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 Lisa 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, one with no Chinese language skills.

Lisa and her then-husband had settled in Langfang, a rural town an hour outside Beijing, and rented a concrete-block home without heat. Right away, Lisa stood out — not just among the Chinese, but among her fellow missionaries.

She had run-ins with local hospital staff and officials, who considered her another pushy American. But she also simply didn’t fit the image of a Christian aid worker. Hip and outspoken with a mane of thick red hair, she liked 1960s clothing and didn’t come on strong with Bible-speak.

She didn’t connect with either the country or the people in her cause.

Then came that ghastly discovery on a dreary March morning in 2002.

First edition of the book

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 Lisa 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 Lisa could see muscle, tendon and bone.

Just then, Lisa recalls, the baby’s eyes flickered. He looked right at her, expectantly, as if to say, “Are you my mother?”

Then Lisa made the decision that changed everything.

Ignoring conventional wisdom limiting the jurisdiction of a foreigner in a strange land, she assigned herself as the child’s advocate. Doctors discouraged her. They had never seen anyone so badly burned. No matter how much time and money she spent, they warned, this boy is dead.

She named him Levi. She just liked the sound of it. Later she learned the word means “to bind and unite.” She liked the sound of that even more.

Levi’s first surgery was a success. Doctors removed part of his left arm and performed numerous skin grafts. But days later, infection set in. They operated again, taking more of his left arm. There would probably be more amputations, they said.

Lisa flinched. Levi’s scarred face and body were bad enough. Now she felt as though she was losing him limb by limb.

Soon, she learned a Boston surgeon who had offered to come to China to treat the boy. But Lisa wanted more.

Why not take the baby right to physicians at Boston’s Shriners Hospitals for Children, where they could use their own equipment in their own surroundings?

That’s the way Lisa thinks. Nothing is impossible.

So began her race to accomplish something others considered foolhardy: getting a dying, undocumented Chinese baby into the United States. She hadn’t even registered Levi’s hukou, or permanent residence, with Chinese authorities.

Such documentation takes months. Lisa had days, if that.

Chinese doctors were preparing for another surgery, perhaps to amputate the boy’s remaining hand. She had to act fast. With the help of orphanage staff, she began a telephone and e-mail campaign aimed at foreign charities and government offices in China and the U.S.

With each call, she learned about how things get done in China. Hardball was out. She had to use connections, or guanxi, with people sympathetic to the boy’s plight.

“I couldn’t go in as the pushy American, become too highly emotional,” she said. “In the U.S. that works. Go in, be the tough bitch, get what I want. That did not work here.”

Soon, a new mother’s sheer love and insistence began to part the bureaucratic waters.

Levi was granted a hukou. He was issued a passport, and then a U.S. visa. Lisa’s cold calls even resulted in a free flight for her and the baby.

Her work did not go unnoticed, causing tensions at home that would later end her marriage. But she couldn’t stop. With $50 in her purse, she boarded a plane for Boston with a baby still bleeding fluids.

Levi eventually endured at least two dozen surgeries to heal his scorched body.

Then he returned home to China, where Lisa officially adopted him in 2007.

All the while, his spirit grew.

Children taunted him, holding out a crooked arm, saying, “I’m Levi!” Some didn’t want to sit next to him. People stared.

Levi saw none of it.

He drew a self-portrait: a boy with a missing hand and toes. He even drew the scars.

One day, as I reported the newspaper story, the five-year-old approached me in his kindergarten classroom.

“I only have one arm,” he announced cheerfully. “Will you tie my shoes?”

He pointed to his left foot.

“This one doesn’t have any toes.”

Now he easily ties those shoes with three fingers and one thumb.

Such perseverance came with the help of a mother’s discipline. Despite his injuries, Lisa treated Levi just as she did her biological children and his fellow adopted sibling, a Chinese-born girl named Orly.

Andy maybe even harder.

When Levi fell, he got up by himself. When he said he couldn’t do something, she told him, flat out, “You’re a big boy. You can do it yourself.”

Now that’s Levi’s mantra: I can do it myself.

But Levi was not the only one saved.

Lisa was, too.

She eventually wrote a book about the experience called “Saving Levi: Left to Die . . . Destined to Live” and wants to make it into a movie.

We stayed in touch over the years.

Lisa eventually returned to California. As a single mother of six, in 2019 she earned both her Bachelor’s Degree in nonprofit and social change and her Master in Public Administration at USC. She did so on full scholarships.

She commuted two hours each way from the Inland Empire. To beat traffic, she left at 3:30 am., sleeping in the parking garage at school until classes started.

Homeless shelters wouldn’t accept her because she had too many kids.

One day, on the phone, I told her that she and her family reminded me of the Brady Bunch on speed.

Funny, wild and loud.

For years, Lisa was hard on herself, thinking she was never good enough. That’s changed. Now she accepts who she is, the kooky redhead who dares to be different.

Over the years, she and I talked about Levi’s future, what was to come.

Lisa knew the most difficult times would be when Levi “fell in love and physicality becomes an issue.”

It is a pain not even a vigilant mother could prevent.

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried.

Not long ago, I joined Lisa and Levi for dinner in Temecula.

Levi strode forward and shook my hand, full of confidence.

His mother beamed.

And for good reason. The kid cannot be stopped. He has long hair he wears surfer-dude style. Lisa has posted video of him scoring three-point shots as a guard on his high-school varsity basketball team.

Now Levi wants to study sports medicine and psychology. His mother has taught him what it’s like to be a high-achiever, to flatly shut down the critics.

He recently scored a modeling job to promote the upcoming Olympics.

Talk about confidence.

He’s a good cook and a top-rate driver, an immigrant who has realized the American dream.

At dinner, I asked Levi if he still blames his birth parents for his fate.

He doesn’t.

He returned to his village a few years ago. His parents have since vanished, but he saw the life they led. “They were poor,” he said. “What could they do?”

Lisa still keeps a tiny yellow bootie, part of the outfit she calls Levi’s burial clothes. It’s a way to gauge the remarkable progress of a boy left for dead in a Chinese cornfield.

And now, when she looks at her son, where he has been, what he has accomplished, what he’s about to accomplish, like everyone else, she marvels.

John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City, Nevada. His website is www.johnglionna.com.

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Former Big City Journalist turned Sojourner

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John Michael Glionna

John Michael Glionna

Former Big City Journalist turned Sojourner

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