When Valerie was four, she asked her father to pull her out of school. “I didn’t want to go anymore,” she recalled. Her legs had begun to bow outward. Her father complied, eventually sending her to live with her uncle’s family in the city, closer to help. But, instead of undergoing the necessary surgery, Valerie became apprenticed at a nearby tailor shop. She spent most days cutting, ironing and stitching fabric together. Despite her mishappen legs, she had plans to one day open her own business.
It was a stranger who eventually told Valerie about Mercy Ships. One day, the 14-year-old left the shop on an errand, only to be startled by a woman following her, trying to give her information. “I was scared,” remembered Valerie, “but, looking back, I think that woman was an angel.”
Not long after, Valerie came onboard the Africa Mercy. She would be one of 76 children and teenagers who would receive orthopaedic surgery during the ship’s 10-month field service. With a successful surgery and proper physical therapy, her legs would become straight, and she would be able to walk normally, even run.
But correcting bowed legs, especially for older patients, isn’t a quick process. Valerie’s straightened legs would need plenty of time and rehab to grow strong enough to walk.
That process would be discouraging at times, but it would also give Valerie an opportunity to grow. One night, early on in her recovery, she called a friend over to her bed. “I want to learn how to read,” she confided. It was the first time the woman had seen the 14-year-old smile without prompting. She found a few alphabet pages for Valerie to trace.
The next night the friend came back. “How is it going?” she asked.
“These are not enough,” responded Valerie, pointing to the pages tucked away in her mattress. “I need more.”
Fast forward a few months, and Valerie had almost finished with rehab. She wasn’t staying in the hospital anymore, but instead she was staying in the nearby HOPE Center (the Mercy Ships outpatient facility). It was a sunny afternoon, and she was lying down, looking at the sky. “I was very happy that day,” she remembered. “I told myself, ‘Now that the white people have healed my legs, I no longer want to be a seamstress … I want to go back to school.’”
Not long after that moment, Valerie’s legs had become strong enough to go home. She didn’t go back to her apprenticeship. Instead, she was going to return to school. “It will be great,” she anticipated. “People will say, ‘Is this the same girl? Her legs are straight!’”