Ibrahim’s strong straight feet

It’s easy to see Ibrahim’s joyful spirit. His adorable grin is absolutely infectious, but as soon as the one-year-old tries to stand up, his twisted feet become evident.

His mother, Salimatou, noticed that something was wrong with Ibrahim’s feet as soon as he was born. Both of his feet were bent inwards, a condition which only worsened as Ibrahim grew. Once he began crawling and eventually attempted to walk, Salimatou’s fears grew stronger. She soon realised that something was wrong with her child — something she had no way to fix.

Ibrahim is the youngest of five boys, all of whom keep Salimatou on her feet from dawn to dusk. In order to keep Ibrahim safe, Salimatou would often keep him in a sling on her back, but, she knew that this wouldn’t work as he grew older. With his ability to walk becoming increasingly limited, Ibrahim was facing a future full of difficulties and few options.

One day, Salimatou and her husband heard a radio announcement about a hospital ship that would be sailing into Guinea. After travelling to the Africa Mercy, Ibrahim and his family were hopeful that this would be their chance to find healing for his legs.

Ibrahim was welcomed into the Mercy Ships Ponseti clinic and was soon undergoing treatment to heal his clubfoot. He spent seven weeks in casts, which gently manipulated his feet into a normal position, before undergoing a simple surgery to snip a tendon in his ankles. Afterwards, he was recast and given several more weeks to heal.

Halfway through Ibrahim’s treatment, his mother said, “I can see the difference in his feet already. His feet are getting straighter each week — we can all see it! It makes us so happy.”

While his time in casts was over after leaving the ship, Ibrahim still has some work to do before he is fully healed. He will continue to wear a nighttime brace for years, to ensure his feet stay straight, much like wearing a retainer after having braces removed.

The simplicity of Ibrahim’s treatment is encouraging for other children suffering from clubfoot. The Ponseti treatment doesn’t require a state-of-the-art operating room or cutting edge surgical equipment, but instead relies on time, plaster, patience, and proper training.

Clubfoot program manager Aisling Russell from the UK has brought several local Guinean medical professionals alongside their team throughout the Ponseti process. By providing local hands-on training and letting them be a part of every step of the journey, the Mercy Ships Ponseti team hopes that these locals will be able to continue treating children with clubfoot in Guinea long after the ship sails away.

You don’t have to look far to see the effects that this training is having. Mercy Ships was based in Cameroon the previous year, where the Ponseti team ran similar mentorship programs with local professionals. This year, they brought back a familiar face to lead Ibrahim’s tenotomy procedure: Dr Faustin Atemkeng Tsatedem, a Cameroonian orthopaedic surgeon who received this training during the last field service. He visited Guinea several times to assist with surgeries like Ibrahim’s and to help train a new batch of medical professionals.

“The Ponseti Method of treating clubfoot is the gold standard treatment method used worldwide. Children who complete treatment are then free from deformity and a life of disability,” said Aisling. “In the context of Guinea, this is even more poignant as there is a misunderstanding about the cause of physical deformities that brings shame and limited opportunities for work and marriage. The transformation is obvious, but the lifelong impact is that these children then have a chance to live a life free of shame and the opportunity to work and input to their community.”

He’ll be able to walk like other boys when he grows up. It makes me so happy to see him like this.

Ibrahim is so young that he won’t remember life before his Ponseti treatment. He’ll grow up with feet that carry him where he wants to go, with the only remnant of a former life being the brace he wears at night for the next several years — but his mother will never forget.