Liberian teen's life saved during trip to Minnesota

When you meet 19-year old Melvin Coleman, you might see someone at a disadvantage. He’s a young man with some obstacles, but his quality of life has never been better. 

"It could've been worse; if I stayed in Liberia, I probably wouldn't be alive," he said.

Melvin came to Minnesota just a few years ago after life in Liberia took an unexpected turn. He arrived in Minnesota to get a second opinion on his injured knee.

"My knee got really swollen over time. It was really big and I couldn't even bend my knee," he said.

Doctors in Liberia told him it was arthritis. But Melvin wanted a second opinion, so he came here--where his uncle, Samuel Cole, was already living.

"I saw him walking, it was pretty strange. It was kind of deformed, you know, he wasn't upright. I knew something was wrong," Samuel Cole said.

They were right: It was cancer.

Samuel remembers that doctor’s visit like it was yesterday.

"When they saw the leg, we didn't even leave to go home. Immediately they put in an order for chemo," he said. 

Melvin remembers, too.  

"It was me and my uncle. We went to the office and he told us this is the only way we can save your life, we have to perform an amputation. And I just kind of broke down in tears for like five minutes just crying," Melvin said

Adding more stress to the bone cancer diagnosis, Melvin’s insurance wasn’t covering what he needed, including his prosthesis which would run upwards of $40,000.

"Every day I would pick him up from school and I would think, 'what am I going to do? How are we going to do this? There's no way we can do this without insurance,'" Samuel said. 

Samuel, who was just starting his first year of medical school, put his studies aside so he could focus on improving his nephew’s quality of life.

"I was up late one night just reading because I could barely sleep, just reading and one of these late night commercials came on and it was Shriners [Hospital]. The next morning I picked up the phone. Before I could end my sentence  - I don't remember who I spoke to  - she said, 'oh no that's fine. You can bring him in next week,'" Samuel said.

Melvin was all in.

"I was really excited. One of my biggest goals was having my prosthetic for my prom," Melvin said.

Just three months later, Melvin attended the Mahtomedi prom and his accomplishments just kept coming. A month later he graduated at the top of his class, despite missing weeks at a time for chemo.

Then he was accepted as a Presidential Scholar at the University of Minnesota. Now a sophomore, he’s studying medicine.

"That's one of my goals, basically, to try and go back home and just share my experiences and just kind of help the healthcare system there," Melvin said.

It’s a long road from he was just a couple of years ago - new home, a new body, a new way of looking at life.

"Where we are from, people with disabilities are not well taken care of. So he was worried about the looks, see he's sitting in a wheelchair with one leg. And I told him, 'kid this is America. You can do anything with an amputation,'" Samuel said.

Melvin’s aunt, Pethuel LeFlore-Cole, has taken him in as her own son. She marvels at his resilience.

"Melvin is exceptional. I don't know many people that could go what he went through and still thrive past the trauma,” she said.