The air was warm and thick in the room where three-year-old Paul Bernard and his older cousin were sleeping. It was a night like any other. But in his sleep, his cousin accidentally knocked over a nearby kerosene lamp, lighting their mattress on fire and engulfing the bed in flames.
Paul tried to beat the flames off with his hands to no avail, leaving him with severe burns across his face, upper body, and arms. His wounds took two long years to heal, but they left his elbow locked in a tight burn contracture, severely limiting the use of his arm.
Now 11 years old, Paul spent most of his childhood learning to cope without hardly any use of his arm. While eating meals, he positioned himself closer to the table. Carrying objects meant making two trips. “Paul’s life has meant always going the extra mile to do things normal boys can do,” said his grandmother, Martha.
Soft-spoken and gentle, Paul felt the sting of years of shame. His mother sadly recounted how Paul was mocked by strangers on the bus or children on the street. Yet Paul’s warm spirit was unshakeable through it all.
“I believe Paul will be a man of God. He is brave and courageous. If it had been another kid in his condition, I don’t think anyone would have managed like Paul. He’s so kind and loves people,” said his mother, Estelle.
For several years following the accident, Paul stayed at home instead of going to school. He fell behind, and his family worried he might never be able to catch up. Eventually, they sent him back to school and were thrilled to realize that their intelligent son was learning faster than they could have imagined! But Paul dreamed of becoming a carpenter one day, and not even a razor-sharp mind could help him regain the mobility he needed for that job.
But one day, a radio announcement gave Paul and his family something they didn’t have before … hope.
While listening to the radio, Paul’s grandfather heard of a hospital ship that was sailing into Cameroon to offer free surgeries. The family was amazed, and they immediately registered Paul to be screened for surgery and waited to hear whether he could receive an operation to repair his arm.
The wait was difficult, but Estelle said she held onto peace. “Deep inside, there was an instinct telling me to have hope,” she said.
Just months later, that same hope became reality. Paul’s grandmother brought him to the Africa Mercy, where he received surgery to remove the scar tissue and replace it with healthy skin grafts. Paul was free to stretch out both arms — something he hadn’t been able to do for over seven years!
Estelle joined them on the Africa Mercy weeks later, and she couldn’t believe the difference in her son! “We went for a dressing change and I got to see his arm for the first time when the bandages were off,” Estelle said. “I got goosebumps all over because for the first time I could see how much he had changed.”
But his surgery was just the start. Paul was a champion through his many rehabilitation sessions, where work and play often went hand-in-hand. Playing basketball, stretching exercises, and practising his dexterity through picking up objects were just part of his road to recovery.
“He currently has almost full elbow range of motion — enough range that he won’t be limited,” said Chelsea Darlow, the volunteer occupational therapist who was by Paul’s side during his long rehabilitation. “I think it’s opened the door for everything. He can go to school, write, colour, draw, work one day — he won’t be held back at all.”
Now home in his village, these words are ringing true for Paul. He has returned to school, where he can finally write and participate in class activities more easily. And being able to help his grandparents take care of the home means he can take on more responsibility as he grows up. And his ability to once again play normally with his friends means he’s regained a piece of his childhood.
And now, Paul Bernard can go the extra mile to work toward his dream of becoming a carpenter!
Written by: Rose Talbot