Isabelle lives in a small village in the mountainous centre of Madagascar’s far north. The surrounding harsh terrain makes the area almost inaccessible, especially during the wet season when the dirt roads become mires of red mud. The 13-year-old loves her village life, and her favourite thing to do is to go on walks with her little sister and her best friend. “We are always together,” remarks Isabelle.
In their village there is no doctor and no clinic. So when Isabelle’s face began to hurt and swell a year ago, there was no one to turn to for advice. “I had a toothache, and I thought it was my tooth swelling. But it kept getting bigger and bigger, and it didn’t stop!” she declares.
As the side of her face became more and more distended, life began to change for Isabelle. She was banned from school when her teacher told her, “You cannot come here because of your face.” Isabelle suffered hurt from every side. “Some people in my village were rejecting me, telling me ‘Don’t come near! I don’t want your disease!’ I was afraid and was praying to God asking, what is this problem? Why is it growing?” It seemed like there were no answers for Isabelle, only painful questions.
Each evening in their small mud-and-thatch hut, Isabelle’s family roll their sleeping mats out on the hard-packed earth floor. They huddle together and listen to radio broadcasts- a life-line for the isolated community.
One night Isabelle heard something on that radio that completely altered her future. She recounts, “It said, ‘Those who have diseases, Mercy Ships is doing free surgery. Don’t hesitate to come.” As her father was away and her mother had just delivered a little sister, Isabelle and her older brother set off for the Mercy Ships patient screening day they had heard about on the broadcast. The siblings walked for two days on the muddy road, stopping at villages for food, water and shelter along the way. When they got close to the city, they were able to catch a bus for the remaining half-day’s travel. The arduous journey proved worth their effort. The rapidly growing tumour on Isabelle face was examin
ed at the patient screening location and they were given a date to arrive at the Mercy Ship for free surgery to remove the tumour. This time, her big sister accompanied her as she traveled from the middle of the island down to the coast. Isabelle caught her first glimpse of the ocean – and of the hospital ship that would change her life.
A month after she was first examined, Isabelle received her free surgery. Maxilla-facial specialist and Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gary Parker, explained the challenging decision-making process he went through with other surgeon, Dr Leo Chen. Because Isabelle was at the cusp of puberty, they were able to do a radical operation that would ensure the growing yet benign tumour was completely removed from her face.
The visible swelling that caused so much ridicule for Isabelle in her village was only a third of the size of the growth. The developing tumour relentlessly pushed up behind her eye, back into her cranial cavity, and was embedded down in the right side of her upper jaw. Isabelle and her family were unaware that without specialised surgery, her expanding facial deformity could cause the loss of vision in her right eye.
The volunteer surgeons conducted a series of complex operations for Isabelle that removed the tumour and every piece of bone that it had begun to devour. With bone and muscle grafts from her skull they carefully reconstructed her face. They rebuilt the right half of her upper jaw, they restructured her cheek bone and eye socket, they remodeled the side of her nose. They transferred muscle to restore her cheek and complete her nose, and skin from her abdomen to her head. When she awoke from surgery, Isabelle looked remarkable.
Just two weeks after surgery Isabelle was ready to head for home. Her sister said their parents would be delighted to know ‘the swelling’ is gone forever.
Isabelle was full of stories about the ocean and having her fingernails painted. She had a handful of photos after having her picture taken for the very first time. The source of her ridicule was removed, and in typical child-likeness she was oblivious that her vision had been saved. Isabelle was focused on seeing her Mama, and getting back to the serious childhood business of taking long countryside walks with her friends.