Lifestyle

How a former NASA mission controller and a Lost Boy of Sudan helped each other heal

Panther Ajak Mayen (left) and David Reed (and Reed’s wife) collaborated on Mayen’s story of being a Lost Boy of Sudan.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Panther Ajak Mayen (left) and David Reed (and Reed’s wife) collaborated on Mayen’s story of being a Lost Boy of Sudan.

When David Reed was growing up in Montana, he built rockets. As a young boy in Sudan, Panther Ajak Mayen dodged them.

Reed’s mother often told him to go out and play and be home for dinner. Mayen’s mother told him to run for his life and never come back.

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On the surface, the two men seem unlikely compadres, but a serendipitous meeting — and Reed’s brush with death — led them to form a lasting friendship and partnership. “Dave is my American father,’’ Mayen says during an interview at Reed’s home in Carlisle. Reed nods. “This guy got me through,” he says.

Reed, 75, followed his childhood dream and went on to work at mission control at NASA, where he sent astronauts into space and brought them home safely. Mayen, 36, became a personal care assistant at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, where his mission is to send patients home healthy.

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But Mayen’s journey was anything but a straight road. He is one of approximately 20,000 so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.” He spent his early years fleeing the civil war that swept his homeland from 1983 to 2005. He walked thousands of miles in his bare feet, buried a childhood friend at the age of 7, and ran from crocodiles and bombs. For many years, he didn’t know if his parents were dead or alive.

Reed, on the other hand, was part of the team that got Neil Armstrong to the moon and shepherded the ill-fated Apollo 13 to safety.

The two met in 2014 when Reed was raced to the hospital. He had undergone a successful stem cell transplant to treat leukemia a year earlier, but due to complications with medication, he fell into a diabetic coma two days after Christmas.

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“Oh my God, it was bad,” Reed’s wife, Florence, says. “If he hadn’t gone in, he wouldn’t have made it.”

Mayen was assigned to take his vitals and make him go for walks along the cancer ward. “He was not in good shape when I met him, but he is a tough fighter,’’ says Mayen.

Reed, who isn’t used to slowing down and is prone to act as if he is still barking commands on his headset at mission control, began peppering Mayen with questions. As Mayen told his tale, Reed began to feel better. But he was haunted by the Lost Boy’s story. He couldn’t sleep.

At the age of 6, Mayen, along with some cousins, left the small village of Kolnyang in what is now South Sudan. He was on the run for many years and ended up at the infamous Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, where he lived in a tent in deplorable conditions for nine years. There was no plumbing, and malnutrition and malaria were rampant.

He earned his high school diploma at the camp and then worked as an assistant at the camp’s hospital. By a twist of fate, he was selected to be resettled to the US, where he was sponsored by Catholic Charities in Boston. He had never been on a plane before, but felt a sense of gratitude when he landed in the US. He trained to get his personal care assistant certificate and was hired by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2002. He worked the night shift while getting his B.A. in environmental science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Reed and his wife have a history of producing self-published books, including one about the folks who worked on mission control at NASA.

“We had a job to do and we did it,” Reed says of his days at NASA. “We worked with computers that had less power than what is in a cellphone.” Along with his colleagues, he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom for getting Apollo 13 home. And he has a crater named after him on the moon, dubbed Reed Crater. “It’s on the dark side,’’ he says, with a laugh.

‘Dave is my American father. This guy got me through.’

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Despite his own place in history, Reed was obsessed with Mayen’s past. Even though he was very ill, he encouraged Mayen to write his story. Mayen was not confident about the project. He grew up speaking the dialect of his Dinka tribe, and English is his second language. But Reed would not take no for an answer.

“He was insistent,” Mayen recalls. He eventually agreed. Together, Reed and his wife helped Mayen put his story into words. The self-published memoir, “Escaping Nightmares . . . Living Dreams: A True Story of One of the Lost Boys of Sudan,” came out a few months ago and is available on Amazon. All proceeds from the book will be funneled into school supplies for the Malek Primary School in Mayen’s native village. Now a US citizen, he plans to journey home in August to deliver much-needed school supplies.

The process of writing the book helped Mayen heal. He hadn’t realized the scars he bore until he finally told his story.

“It brought back bad moments, but when I put it down on paper, it was a healing process,’’ Mayen says. As he recalled his lowest moments — dodging bullets, losing friends — he experienced a sense of catharsis. And he realized that his own attitude helped him survive.

“Pain and suffering are a part of life, but when you put hope in the middle of it, it helps you get to the next level. You think, ‘One day, this nightmare is going to be over. One day, I will get to the top of the mountain.’”

He brings that positive attitude to his work with patients. “I tell my patients that if you have a bad day, think about tomorrow. It will be a better day. Think positively.”

Allison Andrews, an oncology nurse at Brigham and Women’s who also cared for Reed, knew Mayen was from Sudan, but she didn’t know his history until recently.

“He is a very calming presence, soft-spoken, humble and unassuming, very pleasant,’’ she says. “There is a Zen about him, which is amazing when you think of what he has been through.”

Reed was not always the easiest patient, since he is used to being in control. But his meeting with Mayen helped him heal, partly because it gave him a new mission. “It forced Dave to think outside of himself,” Andrews says.

And Mayen’s story does have a happy ending. He went back to his homeland in 2008 and discovered that his parents and two siblings had survived, though his younger sister died during the civil war. His homecoming was ebullient. He hopes to get another degree, perhaps as a nurse practitioner so he can eventually return to his village and offer medical care. For now, he is taking care of patients, applying that Zen bedside manner.

“I tell them it might be raining today,” he says, “but tomorrow we will see the sun.”

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com
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