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Victoria was on her own in the world

Victoria never lost hope. Not after her parents died when she was a girl, not after she was forced to start begging in the streets, and not even when she began developing a massive facial tumour when she was only 18 years old.

Now, the resilient 23-year-old sat on the deck of the Africa Mercy, one hand holding a blue cloth to her bandaged face. Above the white bandages, her eyes sparkled when they caught the sunlight. It was difficult for her to speak after her tumour removal surgery, but warmth radiated from her smile. Her story was begging to spill out.

Her journey, like that of many of the patients who come to the ship, was marked by courage. It was not a short one … nor was it easy. Her travels took her from the far north, beyond Cameroon’s borders, on an arduous three-day journey to the port city where the Africa Mercy is docked.

Orphaned from an early age, the brave young woman made the trip alone. She was accustomed to facing obstacles. She had spent her adolescence fending for herself – living on the streets and sometimes forced to beg for money. Then the tumour appeared, slowly expanding over her face, affecting her in ways that stretched beyond the physical. It was difficult to eat or speak clearly. People avoided looking at her, and it became more challenging to find work to earn a living.

Victoria could have easily given in to the bitterness of a hardened heart. But, even in these difficult circumstances, her love for Jesus remained. It shone brilliantly in her eyes and was evident in her gentle spirit.

After hearing about Mercy Ships, Victoria bravely left the familiar behind for a chance at a brighter future — one without the weight of the tumour that had burdened her for five years.

“Victoria was all joy the night she came to the ship. The surgery took some of her energy and spark. Yet, through moments on the ward and dances down the hall, Victoria recovered

Victoria’s eyes tell the story of her healing

well both in heart and health,” said Kayla Bissonette, a volunteer ward nurse. “What was once work and exercises changed to laughs and friendships during her stay … the smile that reaches her eyes is how I’ll remember her!”

Victoria’s time on the ship gave her plenty of opportunities to exercise her engaging smile. While recovering from surgery, she celebrated her 24th birthday on the Africa Mercy, surrounded by fellow patients and caring crew members.

Before long, Victoria’s bandages were removed, and she saw herself tumour-free for the first time in years! “Thank you for making me beautiful,” she said to a nurse.

“You’ve always been beautiful,” the nurse replied.

Victoria’s first surgery left her free to eat, speak, and move with much more ease than before, but her journey to a full recovery was not yet complete. A routine second surgery awaited her to tighten the stretched skin on her chin.

But as she sat on the deck in the warm sunshine, Victoria’s journey to healing had already begun. By bravely telling her story, Victoria shared the hope she received, and her powerful transformation is evident in her beautiful smile and sparkling eyes.

‘Thanks for making me beautiful,’ Victoria told a nurse after the surgery to remove her tumour. ‘You’ve always been beautiful,’ the nurse replied.

Story by Rose Talbot

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“You have saved my life.” Mabouba’s voice breaks as she expresses her gratitude. After six years, her life-threatening tumour is finally gone. ““It was in 2010 that it started,” the 23-year-old recalls. At the time, Mabouba was finishing up her junior year of high school with plans to become a midwife. The tumour changed all that.

“I have no donation, no gift to give you. But God says when you care for your neighbour, heaven will be guaranteed for you. So I wish you heaven,” she declares.

The award-winning image ‘Searching for Hope’ was taken of Mabouba by Mercy Ships photographer Kat Sotolonga prior to surgery. Kat was awarded by The Lancet – renown UK general medical journal – in their annual medical-related photography competition. Congratulations Kathryn Sotolongo and Mabouba!

 

Searching for Hope, Kat Sotolonga
Searching for Hope, photographer Kat Sotolonga

 

Mabouba after surgery
Mabouba after surgery

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The Press brings in the New Year by interviewing Jess Doney on her return from the Mercy Ships wards. Read Nursing on a ship in Africa

Jess Doney (NZL) Ward Nurse, Adult ICU

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At 7 mths Haingo was newborn size
At 7 mths Haingo was newborn size
Haingo was born in a tropical downpour. Even in the hut’s dim light it was clear Hiango’s tiny mouth was slashed by a bi-lateral cleft lip. Her mother Viviaby’s joy turned to sadness, and her father immediately rejected the newborn saying, “In our family we don’t have babies like this!”

No one in their Madagascan village had heard of this disfigurement. “Is it because of something that I did?” Viviaby wondered. “But I am a Christian, we have nothing taboo (cursed). If God gave her to me like she is, He knows how to take care of her.” But the visible deformity was the least of Haingo’s problems.

The situation became dire as days passed and Haingo was unable to breastfeed because of her cleft palate. The hole in the roof of her mouth prevented Haingo from sucking. She cried incessantly. Her father said, ‘It’s not going to survive so you’d better kill it!” Her mother declared, “Let her live!”
Viviaby kept Haingo alive with diluted canned milk – each can costing a day’s wages. Still Haingo failed to thrive. “I did not have money to buy something good for her, recalls Viviaby. “She was getting more and more skinny. I was afraid, I was always praying.” At seven months old Haingo weighed only 2.2kg.

On every side Viviaby encountered superstition and cruel comments – until one day women who recently received free surgeries on the Mercy Ship walked by their secluded village. They heard about Haingo. “There is free treatment. You should bring your baby there!” they shared.
So for two days petite courageous Vivaby carried her baby through rugged countryside to find transport to the Mercy Ships patient screening in her region.

The urgency of Haingo’s situation was accessed by screening coordinator Mirjam. “Haingo was seven months old, looked like she was only two months. I was surprised she was still alive. I realised we couldn’t do surgery straight away. She would have to be in our Infant Feeding Program to gain weight.” Haingo and her valiant mother accompanied the team returning to the Africa Mercy on a Mission Aviation Fellowship flight.

With loads of TLC Haingo gained enough weight to have surgery
With loads of TLC Haingo gained enough weight for surgery
Mother and daughter were rushed onboard the hospital ship, and paediatric nurses began around-the-clock emergency nutrition. Shelby was charge nurse when Haingo was admitted. “She was so small! If you didn’t know her age you would think she was newborn.”
Viviaby slept well for the first time since Haingo’s birth because “They were feeding her with an (oral feeding) syringe because she couldn’t suck a bottle,” she explains.

Haingo began to gain weight and become responsive. Viviaby talked with other mothers of cleft lip babies in the ward. She was comforted, and she no longer felt alone. After 10 days Haingo was stabilised and discharged to the Mercy Ships HOPE (Hospital Out Patients Extension) Centre. Haingo’s weight was tracked, her development and care discussed in the Infant Feeding Program (IFP). “I love seeing the transformation as the infants gain weight, get stronger and reach developmental milestones,” shares Mercy Ships dietitian, Jillian Davis (USA), ‘A most impacting aspect is the parents gaining hope.”
“Before, Haingo was crying a lot because she did not eat enough. But now she is happy! She has enough food!” exclaimed Viviaby.

As Haingo grew, she began to do all the heart-warming things that babies her age are purposed to. She tracks movement with eyes that were previously glazed, and waves ‘Veloma’ (goodbye) with the chubby arms that had been so frail. After five months Haingo reached 3.5 kg, and the vital ‘average weight for height’ benchmark. At last she was strong enough to undergo operations to repair her cleft lip and part of her palate.

As Haingo came out of the first surgeries, Viviaby gathered her baby in her arms. “She’s beautiful!” was all the overwhelmed mother could say.
When Viviaby and Haingo returned to their village, Haingo’s four-year-old brother was distraught. “You exchanged my sister!” he accused, “It’s not my sister!” The villagers too were amazed by the extraordinary change in Haingo’s appearance. Viviaby explained the remaining surgery would fix all of the baby’s problems.

At 13 months old Haingo received her finial free operation. Only now, with her palate closed, can she eat and drink normally, with the ability to speak clearly.

Viviaby reflects, “Nobody believed someone could help Haingo. Without Mercy Ships, Haingo would have died. But my baby is healed!”

Haingo’s life was transformed by mercy.

Haingo was transformed by mercy
Haingo was transformed by mercy

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Somaya before her cleft lip and palate surgery
Somaya before her cleft lip and palate surgery
Somaya after her free surgery
Somaya after her free surgery

Neny’s life seemed to fall apart at every turn. When her daughter Somaya was born, Neny was deeply shocked to see her tiny baby’s mouth marred by a cleft lip and palate. She had never seen anything like it before. Somaya’s father was outraged. “This is not my baby! No one in my family has this,” he ranted, “It is not mine!” He abandoned them both and moved to another village.

When the tearful Neny came home from the hospital, neighbours told her to get rid of the baby. “Give her away to an orphanage. Send her away!” they said over and over. But Neny would not listen. “Somaya is a gift from God,” she replied.

Neny continued to pray for her baby. She remembers the day a few months later when she saw a program on TV about Mercy Ships. Surgeons were fixing people with the same problem as Somaya – with no charge to the patients. With no money to pay for a surgery, this was exactly what Neny needed to hear. It was announced screening for patients would take place soon in a town nearby. “This is an answer from God,” she thought.

Early on the screening day morning, Neny took Somaya to be accessed. This was the first time she had seen another person with a cleft lip. She was encouraged they were no longer alone. When Neny was given Somaya’s appointment card to be treated on the Mercy Ship, she was overjoyed.

Again Neny’s joy turned to despair. Two days before her appointment there was a fire in her house. No one was hurt, but everything Neny owned was lost. She explains. “Of course I was sad that our home got burned, but I was thinking more about the appointment card because it was about the future of my baby. Her lips should have been fixed, but the appointment card got burned.” This additional tragedy weighed heavily on her shoulders, and Neny felt like abandoning all hope.

Somaya was beginning to talk, but her malformed palate made forming words very difficult, and made eating and drinking a challenge. “She had a problem even drinking water, the same for eating. It was going down the wrong way. She was often sick. She was always coughing,” her mother recalls.

Neny’s hopes soared when a radio broadcast confirmed Mercy Ships was returning to Madagascar. Receiving a second card was easier than she imagined. Two-year- old Somaya was once again scheduled for surgery.

In the hospital ship’s ward, the Malagasy mothers of the cleft lip babies were a comfort and support to each other. “We had a good relationship because all those kids had the same problem,” Neny reflects. “We are asking each other, ‘How is your baby doing? And how about yours?’ ” There were no more harsh words, only words of mercy and hope. Finally someone understood.

“Now she is healthy!” declared the relieved Neny after Somaya’s cleft and lip restoration. “Now she can eat and drink normally. Before the surgery she was just able to say Mumma. Now it’s starting to be clear when she wants something, like water. She says, ‘Water Mamma!’ ”

Somaya’s new-found abilities are healing for Neny’s bruised heart too.

Neny was full of anticipation as they prepared to their return to their village. She could not wait to show her neighbours Somaya’s sweet new smile. “They will be amazed to see her back with these lips,” she says with a grin.

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Mercy Ships patients are not the only ones who experience transformed lives. Crew members create treasured memories of heart-lifting and heart-breaking moments. Ward Nurse Heather Morehouse shares a special story:

Edited by Nancy Predaina & Eunice Hiew

(Read the full story in her blog post)

“To The Terror Of A 5-Year-Old In Bed D9 … You Have Changed My Life.

MGB150219_MIOTY_PAT14013_WAREHOUSE_KK0001When you first arrived on the ward, I saw your face … how your lip was pulled up and made your face look like you had a permanent scowl … how your left eye was missing, and your face was distorted … how you played, but were very aggressive, as if you’d spent your whole life fighting …

I found out that, when you were a week old, your mother left you at home with your older siblings so she could go to work to support you. When she came home, she found that you had been attacked by some animal!

It left a hole in your face that got infected, probably with a flesh-destroying bacteria called noma. It ate away your nose and ruined your eye. A local doctor sewed your eye shut and advised your mom to pour hot water on your eye every day for the next five years. Your mom didn’t know what else to do.

You came to us needing a new nose … but you are leaving with a new heart.

After your first surgery, I was your nurse. I think you hated me or feared me so much that you hated me. You left fingernail marks in my arm as you screamed while I did your breathing treatments – you were so afraid that you didn’t realize the treatments were actually painless.

I will never forget how strong you were as you fought. We had to restrain you while you screamed, “Marare, marare!” (“Pain, pain!”) over and over again throughout every treatment … every four hours … for countless shifts over five weeks.

MGB150331_DECK_7_PAT14013_MIOTY_CW0002I remember how your mom wept when Dr. Gary’s wife, Susan, looked into her eyes, saying, “You are a good mom … you are brave.” Your mom looked as if she’d never heard those words in her entire life. She’d spent five years caring for you, keeping you home so both of you wouldn’t have to endure disgusted looks and comments.

She wanted to protect you but had no support. Her eyes were so tired and defeated. She is the most patient, loving mother I have ever met. I remember my somewhat futile attempts to make you smile. Your whole head was bandaged, and you could barely see out of your one good eye. I read to you, placing your hands on the pictures.

You’d stare at the book, unimpressed, and pull your hands away. My heart hurt for you. I brought you crayons. You grabbed the box and dumped them all into your lap as if you were afraid that someone would steal them.

I was feeling defeated as the weeks were going by, and you were still as angry as ever. We nurses would pray over you frequently – for peace over your little mind … that you would come to trust us … that, through our love, the little girl inside would re-emerge.

Your mind was so tormented. You wouldn’t venture more than an arm’s length away from your mom. After treatments, you would throw yourself under your bed, sometimes for hours. You would swing your fist at me whenever I tried to say hello. You refused all medicine. You would spit it in my face, so I hid it in your food … which worked for about two days until you found out and refused to eat.

For your first dressing change, the doctor ordered an oral sedative. We brainstormed about how on earth we were going to get you to take the medicine. I asked you what your favorite food was, but you wouldn’t say.

I asked if you liked chocolate and you nodded. So I mixed the sedatives into Nutella and served it with a spoon and a smile. You took a small bite, and I rejoiced! But then you spat it out. You couldn’t be tricked. The only way was to give you an injection.

I prayed that the peace I saw while you slept would become the peace you’d have while you were awake … that whatever was tormenting you would be gone. But then you’d wake up and return to your angry self.

MGB150321_DECK_7_PAT14013_MIOTY_CW0003Then this week, something about you changed.

You still hate your treatments, and we don’t give you any medications by mouth because you refuse them, but you’re smiling now. A few days ago someone caught you singing, and another nurse taught you how to wink.

Today, more than five weeks from when you first walked through our door, I couldn’t keep the tears from my eyes as I watched you ride around the ward on your little scooter. As I felt you sneak up behind me, poke my side and then dart around the corner while you waited me for me to come chase you.

As I winked at you in your bed, and you winked back. Today I saw your heart heal a little. A heart that has spent its whole life fighting and not allowing anyone in … because no one had ever wanted in.

I cried because you are healing. Because this journey has been so difficult, remembering frustration when you’d thrashed around as I held you, quietly saying, “It’s okay,” but you never heard me through your screams. Because, as often as I wanted to request to not be your nurse, I didn’t – because I knew the Lord would be faithful in healing your body and mind and that He had the power to return your joy.

You are becoming a little girl again. Ever so slowly you are letting us love you. The torment that you’ve endured for the past five years is lifting. My heart has been broken for you. I often ask the Lord to break my heart for His people … and you are evidence that He has. I am honored to bear the burden of this broken heart, because it is worth it to love you.

You, Dear One, are why I am here.”

 

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