VIDEO: This mother carried a burden of shame and ridicule for 25 years, until the tumour weighed 3.5kg. But it because unbearable when her daughter developed a similar lump on her face.
MiNDFOOD: A heartwarming story has come to light of two nurses who served on hospital ships a century apart, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Read the MiNDFOOD article here
When operating theatre nurse Lynda Williams learned about Mercy Ships providing free essential surgeries provided to Africa’s poor, she was immediately engaged and interested in volunteering. What came as a big surprise was that her husband Bill’s trade skills were also in high demand on the hospital ship and they loved the idea of serving as a husband and wife team.
The Fielding couple has returned this week from a six-week tour-of-duty aboard the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy currently docked in Conakry, West Africa. Bill sums it up as ‘Hard work that’s great for the inner soul.’
Lynda was rostered on duty in the vessel’s six operating theatres. Her surgical teams performed tumour removal for large benign yet often life-threatening tumours, and more recently ophthalmic surgery for patients of all ages. ‘The last two weeks I contributed to the healing of people of Guinea who are blinded by cataracts by scrubbing every day in the eye theatre. Although the hours are long, and some of the cases are all day long, the crew we work with are great – surgeons and anaesthetic people even helping to mop the floors, take out the rubbish and saying thank you often!
Bill has a lifetime of trade skills in including industrial refrigeration engineering and plumbing. This experience proved to be invaluable on the Mercy Ship which not only contains a self-sufficient surgical hospital and axillary services, but is also home to 450 crew from more than 40 nations. The Africa mercy is large a town where the main industry is a hospital. Therefore Bill’s work crossed between industrial and jobs that were more domestic in nature. Bills explains, ‘I learned a lot while on board but I also brought a lifetime of engineering skills which became very useful and benefitted the ships engineering department.’
Both Lynda was impacted by the level of need they witnessed ashore Guinea. ‘There are many people in Guinea who cannot afford safe and timely medical care, as 55% of the population live on less than NZ$2.50 a day. There is a shortage of trained doctors and nurses (less than 1 surgeon per 100,000 people). Many people are malnourished and need to have vitamin supplements before and after surgery. Some children also need special feeding programmes so they are healthy enough to enable a successful surgical outcome. Infections, non-cancerous growths, and deformities, (which are not seen in the western world), can kill and maim people who have no healthcare. Children with deformities and severe burns struggle to lead a normal life and are often shamed into covering up or becoming outcasts.’
While Bill was keeping things running behind the scenes, Lynda particularly enjoyed interfacing with the patients before and after surgery. ‘I was most impressed with the very first patient that entered the maxilla-facial theatre on the first day of surgery this year. I was privileged to be the scrub nurse for her operation to remove a cyst from her jaw. The 14-year-old girl walked into the operating room by herself, turned and gave a smile and a little wave before climbing up onto the operating table for her operation. She displayed a total trust and bravery that we would be unlikely to see in our own country.’
‘All the personnel on board were there to achieve the same goal – and it wasn’t about earning money. The experience made me more humble and thankful as to where I was born and live,’ reflects Bill, who has a challenge for Kiwi tradies. ‘We are short of people in the trades to carry out maintenance work – engineers, plumbers, electricians, refrigeration engineers, welders and more.’
Lynda concludes, Volunteering with Mercy Ships has made me realise how easy it is to become comfortable and insular in my lifestyle. I have much to offer others who have so little. Getting to know faithful people from around the globe has been a highlight of this experience.’
High up Mount Manengouba in Cameroon, through rocky terrain and lush foliage, lies the beautiful village of Bororos. The journey to Bororos consists of a steep, uphill horse ride surrounded by craggy rocks with only wildlife for company. But two little girls, sisters Salamatou and Mariama, had never left their village high in the hills of Cameroon because of their twisted legs.
The six- and eight-year-old sisters didn’t get the important nutrients they needed during crucial years of bone development. Without strong bones, the pressure of walking caused their legs to grow incorrectly, resulting in a condition called Valgus. Because of their malformed legs, they both found it difficult to walk to school, and only sometimes managed to attend. Their malnutrition, combined with an inability to access surgery, meant Salamatou and Mariama had to learn to cope with their twisted legs.
Their parents felt guilty when they first knew something was not right. “I felt bad that we did not have any money to take them to the hospital,” recalled their mother, Mymoona. “I was worried about them and their future. If I didn’t do anything, I knew they would have a hard time in life.”
Mymoona was so worried about her daughters that it began to take a toll on her health. So when her husband, Debo, heard about Mercy Ships, he led all three of his girls down the mountain on horseback, making the brave journey to the coast. They were grateful to have each other as they arrived at a ship they had only heard stories about.
“We didn’t know the hospital was actually in the ship. We’ve never been to a ship before,” said Debo. “When I first came I was afraid for my girls, but then I saw many children like them and the fear went away.”
The sisters’ almost identical conditions enabled the whole family to stay together after they were approved for surgery. With their family by their side, Salamatou and Mariama began to soak in their new surroundings and prepare for the operations that would change the course of their lives.
The first day after their surgeries, Salamatou was up and walking around, challenging her sister, who was convinced the straightened casts didn’t contain her own legs. Clutching at the familiarity of her toes, Mariama watched her older sister stand tall. Soon, their strong personalities were evident as they each watched competitively to see what the other was achieving.
Their sibling rivalry throughout recovery encouraged growth as they competed with one another to reach each healing milestone. Who would stand up first? Who could walk the furthest? “They were encouraging each other during their time on the ship,” recalls Debo. “One day, Salamatou said to her younger sister, ‘Because you never smile, I will walk before you…’ And she did! This motivated Mariama in her healing.”
During their rehabilitation exercises, their parents learned about the importance of nutrition. The ship’s dietician gave them valuable information about crucial nutrients, like calcium, before sending the family on their way with plenty of vitamins to aid the girls’ healing.
“They told us about the importance of eggs, fish, and vegetables,” said Mymoona. “We will be sure to tell the other families in the village so it can help us all.”
Volunteer Physiotherapist Meg Crameri worked with the girls during their rehab sessions. She hopes this nutritional advice will be shared to help other families whose children might otherwise end up suffering with similar conditions.
“If you are from a poorer area where nutrition isn’t a top priority, then it’s not surprising that this occurs,” said Crameri. “One of the big ways we can change that is by making sure they do it right when they go back home.”
Salamatou and Mariama returned to Bororos with newly straightened legs! And Debo and Mymoona returned ready to share what they had learned about nutrition during their time on the Africa Mercy.
“The route down the mountain was too much for the girls before, and I thought they would never go down. Their lives are far better now, far improved,” said Debo. “Now, they will be able to commit to school and use their education. Before, my heart was anxious for my family, but now I am content.”
Written by: Georgia Ainsworth
It all started with a toothache when Salematu was 24. As a first-year nursing student, she knew she should go to the dentist, but she was struggling. She had just lost her husband unexpectedly, leaving her with two young daughters. Money was low, and medical costs were high.
But the pain in her mouth grew worse. Eventually, waiting was no longer an option. After examination, the doctor’s news was not good — she was told it was a tumour that was growing slowly but steadily.
Over the next two years, she watched helplessly as it took over her face, pressing into her mouth and making it more difficult to speak or swallow. It twisted her nose. It began to creep closer to her left eye, threatening her vision.
All the while, Salematu was told the same thing by doctors: there was nothing they could do. They did not have the medical capacity to help her. Over time, she was forced to abandon her dream of finishing nursing school. What use was it to continue studying if her tumour kept her from working?
Tired of the looks and comments from strangers in the street, she stopped going out. She became relegated to her home, spending most of her time with her two young daughters. She was ashamed to be seen, embarrassed to let even her daughters witness her changing face.
“I felt helpless. I shouldn’t look like this,” she said.
The first glimmer of hope came the day her uncle called her with news from the port city of Conakry — a hospital ship was arriving to perform free surgeries! Her heart was filled with happiness at the hope of release from the tumour. Salematu got on a bus and made the journey to the capital city alone, leaving her daughters behind with their grandmother.
It was hard to say goodbye not knowing how long it might be until she saw them again, especially without a way to keep in contact. But she knew that this surgery would not only save her life — it would save her daughters from growing up as orphans.
The day she walked up the gangway to receive her operation, Salematu said she felt joy down to her bones.
The next two weeks in the hospital were a blur. After her successful surgery, she bonded with the nurses who gave her around-the-clock care. “The nurses are my favourite,” Salematu said. “They are so kind to me. They have all become my friends.”
After a few days, she was able to look into the mirror and see her new face for the first time after surgery.
“I feel beautiful. I feel good. I feel hopeful,” she marvelled.
During her stay on the Africa Mercy, Salematu couldn’t stop thinking about the moment she would be reunited with her daughters, when they would finally see her without the tumour that had hindered her smile for two long years. Without a way to send them photos, she knew the transformation would be overwhelming.
“They will see me soon, and they will not believe it,” Salematu smiled. “They will be so happy!”
Friendly nurses kept monitoring her progress. She was moving closer to the finish line — the countdown had begun.
The day she was told she could return home, Salematu said she felt like dancing! She was so excited to finally hold her daughters close, and to return to pursuing her dreams of finishing nursing school, with the hope of one-day pouring love and care into others.
These plans for a life that once felt powerless now felt full of limitless possibility. Salematu’s miracle changed her life, and she couldn’t wait to share her joy with the world.