Eric Diatta’s phone never stops ringing. On the other end of the line, it could be any one of the multiplied hundreds of Mercy Ships patients who have come to rely on him.
Eric is from the southern part of Senegal and speaks five languages. In 2019, he met Mercy Ships when Hospital Chaplaincy Program Developer Steve Schwind interviewed him about Senegalese culture. Eric said. “What we wear, what we love to eat, how we speak to people.”
Eric was a translator on the Africa Mercy patient selection team. He and his new colleagues traveled all over Senegal, identifying candidates for surgery. But then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
“It was very, very sad that day when they announced it to the day crew,” Eric said.
The ship would be sailing away for the safety of both crew and patients, and Eric had the heartbreaking task of bringing the news to those awaiting surgery.
“I was just wondering in my mind, saying, ‘OK, what am I going to tell these people?’” he said. “They are here with a big hope.”
Some of the patients were days away from their operations. Eric felt their pain in his own heart. “I have been, let’s say, carrying this condition for years,” he said. “I don’t have the financial means to afford the surgery locally, and now God brings Mercy Ships to help me.”
Eric delivered the news, knowing that he was temporarily extinguishing that hope. But he didn’t leave the patients alone. As the ship left, his work was just beginning.
Thousands of Calls
“I was the one who was calling these patients month after month, and year after year, for two good years,” Eric said.
There were 1,104 patients with canceled surgeries. So Eric made himself a schedule. He called every single patient once a month–that’s over 30 calls every day. Before long, they started calling him back.
“My phone kept ringing day and night,” he said. “They just called, asking, ‘Diatta, are you sure the ship will be coming back?’ I said, ‘Yes. Mercy Ships, one of their core values is to be a person of integrity. So, if they told you ‘We will come back,’ they will.’”
When the ship finally returned in February 2022, Eric was standing on the dock.
“My phone was exploding, ‘Hey Diatta, I saw the ship on TV. It’s real? The ship is here?’” Eric recalled that joyful moment. “I said, ‘OK, yes, we did it, the ship is here. And now you guys will be able to receive your life-changing surgery that you have been waiting for so long.’”
After two years and thousands of phone calls, Eric was able to deliver some good news.
“You cannot feel the joy that I am feeling inside me, not only for me but for the patients who have been waiting,” he said. “Finally God made it possible for the ship to be able to come back.”
Now Eric is back on the patient selection team, going out into every part of Senegal to find new patients and reconnect with those who already have appointments.
“Seeing Eric interact with patients and partners fills my heart,” said Global Patient Selection Manager Ria Bos. “Eric shows Jesus’ love for people through his presence and action.”
Another teammate, Regional Director Kirstie Randall, said there’s no underestimating the way Eric kept hope alive.
“Everywhere we go we hear, ‘Mr. Diatta’ or even ‘Dr. Diatta,’” she said. “It speaks of the trust he has built amongst the patients who have been so patiently waiting for their hope to be realized through surgery.”
Eric can’t seem to shake that honorary medical title, which he thinks came about because of the medical scrubs he wears in his role.
“‘Dr. Diatta, Dr. Diatta,’” he said, laughing. “I say, ‘No, please, I’m not a doctor, I’m just a facilitator.’”
But Dr. Diatta’s “patients” don’t care. And they’ve promoted him to a position that’s even more sacred.
“All these persons are my friends now,” Eric said. “They are my family, I can say. Some of them are telling me… ‘You are part of us now.’”