EPISODE 4: GODS AND MONSTERS

Synopsis 

This episode explores cultural and religious factors that accompany the patient stories. Featured patients include Ramani – a devout Muslim man with a mysterious bone and tissue growth abnormality that deforms his face, Elizabeth – a 20 year old girl with a huge facial tumour her family believe is a voodoo curse, Viviane – a mother of 6 with a tumour of the manible, and Elie – a young Christian boy with gigantism.

Continue reading below, learn about the patients and volunteers featured in this episode, plus explore ways you can be part of the Mercy Ships story too. 

PATIENT STORIES

Meet ELIE

Elie lives with his parents and brothers in Porto Novo, the leafy capital of Benin, set on the banks of Lake Nokoue. Elie has an infectious smile and he loves football. But the abnormal growth of his foot has made life for Elie increasingly difficult, and his favourite game almost impossible to play.

Elie’s body over-produces a particular growth hormone that causes his foot and toes to grow disproportionately to his body. As he’s grown older, Elie has become very aware of the fact that he had an abnormality and it’s begun to impact the way he interacts with the world. His father, Touissant, a taxi driver, has noticed his growing reluctance to participate in activities with his friends. ‘When I ask him why he says it’s because of the way they look at him,’ Touissant says. His mother, Honouine, knows her son’s condition is causing major social problems for him. ‘Since Elie was a small boy I haven’t been able to sleep well because of how he looks. I don’t have happiness,’ she says.

Elie’s dream is simply to wear shoes. ‘I wish that my feet looked like my friends’,’ he says. His parents have taken him to a number of local doctors who have been unable to help reduce the size of Elie’s foot. Now the best chance Elie has of wearing shoes is a free operation by a Mercy Ships volunteer surgeon.

South African plastic surgeon, Dr Tertius Venter examines Elie’s foot and determines the most effective course of action is to debulk the excessive mass around his foot and remove four of his toes entirely. Elie is admitted to the Africa Mercy for surgery and bravely undergoes a procedure that lasts a number of hours. His surgery is followed by a rehabilitation program with volunteer physiotherapist, Ashley, who challenges and supports Elie to use his feet in new ways.

Mercy Ships organised for a local cobbler to make customised shoes for Elie. His abnormal growth has meant that he’ll always need shoes especially made for him but he now has a chance at living his life unhindered by the burden and shame of disfigurement.

MEET VIVIANE

Viviane has a large tumour on her face called an Emiloblastoma. It’s caused by the cells that form the enamel of teeth. If Viviane had access to safe, timely and affordable health care the tumour could be have been removed in its early stages under local anaesthetic by a general practitioner. But no such care is available to the majority of West Africans, and now Viviane faces the real risk of being suffocated by the mass. The tumour is extremely painful and affects her ability to speak normally.

But what has caused Viviane the greatest suffering is the impact the tumour has had upon her family.  Viviane is mother to six children, and they too feel the burden of her condition. “People insult me and the children. The children cried,” Viviane says. When she’s not at home, she covers the tumour with a scarf doing her best to conceal it from public view.  Viviane says, “Sometimes I wondered if a person can have this and still live.”

Viviane was one of 5000 people screened by Mercy Ships during the first weeks of service in Benin. After studying her CT scans Dr Gary Parker confirmed it could be removed, and Viviane was admitted to the Africa Mercy for surgery. She came on board alone, leaving her husband and six children at home. But soon she connected with other patients on the ward, all brought together by the common experience of living with a facial disfigurement.

The removal of a facial tumour of this size is a challenging procedure. It involves completely removing the lower jaw and replacing it with a titanium imitation. An operation of this nature is seldom performed in operating theatres in developed nations. Yet Dr Gary Parker explains that he has now performed “close to hundreds – if not a thousand” of these procedures onboard the Africa Mercy.
Viviane’s surgery was a success. At her first dressing change, she observed herself curiously in a handheld mirror. The tumour is gone. She smiled, laughed and told Dr Gary, “You have done a good job!”

Until her surgery, Viviane’s 7 year old daughter Geraldine had never seen Viviane without a tumour. “When Geraldine saw me without the tumour she had to take my face in her hands before she believed me, ” says Viviane. When Viviane returned home her family celebrated the transformation. Her eldest son  turned to Viviane and told her, “You are beautiful.” For this family, a great weight has been lifted. For Viviane, a new chance at life has arrived.

VOLUNTEER STORIES

MEET Dr GARY PARKER

Gary Parker is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Africa Mercy. He is the key surgeon who operates on the extraordinary and large facial tumours that occur. No-one embodies Mercy Ships like Dr. Gary. His particular speciality is large Maxillo Facial Craniofacial tumours, cleft lip and cleft palate, and ear-nose-throat diseases are life-threatening conditions for children and adults throughout Africa.

An uncorrected cleft palate makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a baby to nurse or drink from a bottle. Even benign facial tumours can grow to such large and distorted sizes that the capacity for an adult to function as a normal member of the community is impossible. Left untreated, tumours can grow to the point of being life-threatening as a person struggles to breathe or eat, and render the victim a social outcast.

Gary has spent his professional life on board the ship- over 30 years of continual service. He and his wife Susan met and have brought up two children on board. His children have attended university in the USA, and Gary and Susan are now spending more time on land to support them.

MEET Dr LINDSAY SHERRIFF

Lindsey and his wife Dianne met whilst studying Medicine at university in Adelaide, South Australia.

They both completed Post Graduate training, and settled in a small rural town. They practiced as Rural Family Medicine Practitioners – combining anaesthetics, obstetrics with general physician and paediatrics work.

After 25 years in private practice, the Australians believed it was the right time to follow a long-term desire to use their medical skills abroad. They feel privileged to take up this work with Mercy Ships.

MEET DR tertius venter

Ten years ago Tertius Venter made the decision to close his private practice in East London, South Africa to become a volunteer surgeon for Mercy Ships. Since then has dedicated his life to providing life-changing plastics and reconstructive surgery for the poorest of the poor in west Africa. Initially he funded his volunteer work by performing cosmetic surgery in developed nations 60-90 days a year but since 2012 has become a full time volunteer. He continues to be supported by the donations of a large private cosmetic surgery practice in the UK.

Tertius first encountered Mercy Ships in 2000 when M/V Anastasis docked in his homeport of East London, South Africa. He was invited to visit on-board and it was an experience that would change his worldview forever. He realised that his skills and training as a plastic surgeon could make an incredible difference to the lives of those who would otherwise have no access to surgical care.

Tertius is passionate about raising awareness of the fact that one third of the world’s population has no access to surgical care and through his writing, workshops and fundraising activities encourages others to get involved in meeting.

MEET THE KIWI BEHIND THE SCENES

Nine years ago a friend passed Sharon Valentine a newspaper clipping, saying ‘I thought of you when I read this.’  The article planted the idea of volunteering with Mercy Ships, and it stuck in the back of her mind.  As years went by and her circumstances changed, Sharon was excited to finally be able to apply. Inspired by her faith, she was determined to use her nursing skills to provide much needed healthcare for people in Africa who struggle in multi-dimensional poverty.

The Rolleston nurse has worked in the Australian Outback, but never on another continent. “I didn’t think I would ever go to Africa, no way!”

See Sharon in the video below as she takes patients Ruth and Marina onto the ship for surgery

Sharon resigned from her long- standing position at Rolleston Central Health to volunteer for seven weeks with the not-for-profit, paying her flights and living costs for the privilege of doing so.

Elie was one of the patients she met in her work as an admissions nurse for the Africa Mercy. Sharon made sure preselected patients began their treatment with ‘all i’s dotted and t’s crossed’. Prior to a patient receiving free surgery, essential medical history is noted. Blood is taken and analysed onboard, specific tests are done for each condition, and further examination by the surgeon is conducted. “In admissions we ask heaps of questions in order to obtain an accurate history of the patient” she explains. Naturally organized, Sharon found the work enjoyable. “I quite like that sort of thing,” she says, “Making sure everything’s squared away.”

Sharon felt deep compassion as she saw the extreme results of generations with limited access to even basic healthcare.  “We just don’t have these issues at home – if they arise, they are dealt with pronto,” she explains.  “I have become so aware and grateful for healthcare in my country.”

Mercy Ships typically spends 10 months each year in an African port. The patients sometimes walk for days hoping for help that is simply not otherwise available to them or their families. “Often people are apprehensive – they may have never been in hospital before,” she explains.

“I will never think of Africa in the same light again; before it was just a colourful continent on the world map.  Benin and my experience here will be with me forever.”

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