DR NEIL THOMPSON
SURGEON FROM NELSON
Surfer, botanist, ENT surgeon. After volunteering four times with Mercy Ships in West Africa, Dr Neil Thomson says, ‘You can never be the same after serving on board. Every time it has a different flavour.’
He is known as ‘Dr Neil’ on board the hospital ship. The title, a unique mix of friendly and professional, perfectly reflects the Mercy Ships community where the like-minded 450-strong volunteer crew lives, works and socialises together during each 10-month field assignment in sub-Saharan Africa.
This tour-of-duty is a stand-out one for Dr Neil. He is once again presented with cases that stretch him to the limit professionally – for many cases the removal of huge, complex, benign yet life-threatening tumours from the face and neck. His patients had no hope of accessing life-saving surgery until Mercy Ships came to town offering free care. But this time Dr Neil hopes for the opportunity to visit one of his former surgical patients, a young boy named Alya. Can they find him five years later in post-Ebola Guinea? Did the free surgery on the Mercy Ship save and transform the eight-year-old’s life? Dr Neil has many questions as he and Janine Boyes, the ship’s Purser from Matamata, travel to the village where they heard Alya is now living with his family.
The father of a son himself, Dr Neil is hugely impacted by meeting Alya again. ‘He engaged my eyes and didn’t let go! That’s a powerful thing for a 12-year-old boy,’ he reflected. ‘Alya is an intelligent and sensitive boy who had looked death right in the face.’
Despite the odds of finding Alya five years later in post-Ebola Guinea, his Kiwi surgeon searches for his patient. Dr Neil Thomson wants to see the long term impact of his surgery which removed the life-threatening yet benign tumour from the boy’s throat.
2013: Soriba sits on a stool at the end of an empty hospital bed waiting for news of his son Alya, who has been in surgery for nearly three hours to remove a tumour from his small neck.
Across the hallway of the hospital ship, Alya’s Kiwi volunteer surgeon Dr Neil works finishes up the successful surgery. ‘Incredible!’ he declares. Alya’s tumour had grown around the eight-year old’s windpipe. ‘He was a few months away from suffocating from this.’ In his short life, the tumour on Alya’s neck since birth grew from the size of a twenty-cent piece to the size of a potato.
But after free surgery onboard the Mercy Ship only a crescent-shaped scar remained where the tumour used to be slowly squeezing the breath from the little boy.
Alya’s father’s eyes flutter between the nurse and the translator relaying the message in his language, Susu. ‘Everything went well. He hasn’t woken up yet, but he will soon.’
The relieved father smiles and announces to the ward in Susu, ‘My mind is free, my heart is happy!’
Another patient chimes in from a bed nearby, ‘Let God bring these kinds of people every year in this country!’ ‘Amen!’ declares Soriba.
Hushed mumbles from the other patients and caregivers in the ward quickly turns to a celebration. ‘May God help them to bring healing for other illnesses we have here,’ wishes one woman. Soriba replies, ‘Amen. May there be healing for all!’
Four days later, a squirmy Alya sits on his knees at the end of his hospital bed, pulling on his father’s shirt. Ready to head home to his village, he is no longer the little boy who can’t catch his breath. He is no longer exhausted from his hindered breathing.
‘Without this opportunity, we didn’t have the means for surgery,’ Soriba confesses as he thinks about what the future could have been. Now I am happy!’
In 2018 the Mercy Ship returned to Guinea and Dr Neil Thomson made it a personal mission to search out Alya. When the team found Alya’s village, Dr Neil recognised Alya’s Dad in the crowd immediately. Following him home Dr Neil was reintroduced to the now 12-year-old, who had grown into a strong and healthy boy. ‘He’s completely restored,’ declared Dr Neil. ‘You can’t even see the incision line from his operation! He is an intelligent and sensitive boy who had looked death in the face. ’
The free operation Alya received changed and transformed his life. Alya now has a very hopeful future.
She spent her childhood on board a Mercy Ship, which inspired Dr Sandra Lako to spend decades of her medical career serving the people of Sierra Leone.
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