When Kaltoumi first arrived on the Africa Mercy, she likely had three months, or less, to live.
The massive facial tumour she’d carried for over five years threatened to starve or slowly suffocate her. An early death was inevitable for the 12-year-old if there was no immediate medical intervention, according to volunteer surgeon and Chief Medical Officer Dr Gary Parker.
‘When we say 5 billion people don’t have access to timely, affordable, safe surgery, Kaltoumi is the poster child for this,’ said Dr Parker. ‘Because of lack of access to the care she needed, a 12-year-old girl ended up with a massive tumour threatening her life.’
No little girl should have to stop going to school, see other children running away in fear at the sight of her, or face the inevitability of a slow death before her thirteenth birthday.
But, Kaltoumi had experienced these realities since she was only seven years old.
She was withdrawn and quiet, but her gaze told the depth of her story when words failed. She seemed to carry the world’s weight on her thin shoulders. Only one of her eyes was visible past the tumour that stretched across the left half of her face.
After the Cameroonian government intervened and flew her to the port where the Africa Mercy was docked, the severity of Kaltoumi’s case was painfully evident to the medical team onboard.
Soon after her arrival, the surgical team, led by Dr Parker, began working with tireless precision to remove the tumour.
The day after her surgery, Kaltoumi saw her new face in the mirror, and the transformation was immediately apparent. But the sting of five years of rejection doesn’t fade overnight, and her emotional healing took time and patience.
“‘A man becomes a creature of his uniform,’” Dr Parker said, reflecting on a Napoleon Bonaparte quote. “The ‘uniform’ that’s put on someone like Kaltoumi, as this tumour relentlessly enlarges, is that you’re cursed. You’re not a worthy member of this human race. When that uniform changes, dramatic things can happen … Who you are, which has been lost for all these years, starts to bubble back up again.”
Slowly, like the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, Kaltoumi’s personality began to emerge. Smiles and giggles replaced blank stares. During her time on the ship, she played with nurses in the wards and blew bubbles outside on the deck.
Even after the initial surgery, her road to recovery was a long one. She returned to the Africa Mercy several months later for a routine follow-up procedure to tighten her skin where the tumour once was.
Crew rallied around Kaltoumi, showering her with affection and friendship. Volunteers like Carys Parker, one of the chaplains onboard, bonded with the 12-year-old like she was her own little sister.
“When I first met her, she was reserved and tentative to try new games and activities with me, but within a matter of weeks I found it impossible to see Kaltoumi without hearing her laughter and being body slammed by one of her hugs,” said Carys. “She loves life and she wants to share that love and joy with others. It truly does take a village to bring about such amazing change.”
Now, Kaltoumi dreams of returning to school and finishing her primary education. She also wants to expand her family’s farm and help sell produce at the local market.
“She has the potential to be a world-changer because she has the determination to never give up,” said Dr Parker.
Her biggest dream is to one day be able to marry and have a family of her own — a future that finally feels possible without the weight of a life-threatening tumour.
“It feels like a heaviness has been lifted from me,” she said with a smile.
Kaltoumi’s transformation shines through her beaming eyes and joyful personality, and she is now filled with hope and gratefulness for the future that she might have never seen without Mercy Ships.
Written by: Rose Talbot