Anadi! (‘hello’ in Susu) I hope your weekend was just dandy. A special little hello goes out to my Houston amigas in NYC who were probably dismayed to learn that hurricane season has followed them to Manhattan. I don’t get any live coverage of this over here, so I’m not sure what the latest updates are, but stay safe!
I’d like to share a story I wrote for the Mercy Ships website about a little girl named Memouna. I think this story is a great example of what so many of our patients go through here – the transformations are much more than just physical.
In the beginning, I met with Memouna many times while working on this story, trying to get her to warm up to me, but Memouna was not having it. I even considered tossing it out all together.
“She is shy and probably too overwhelmed,” I told one of my co-workers. “I’m just going to back off and find another patient who would be willing to talk.”
But slowly, Memouna changed, and she was no longer quiet and timid. Memouna became the 13-year-old kid she really is. And in the process decided that – hey – the talky blonde lady with the clip board isn’t all that bad. =)
And she stole my heart. Read below and she’ll steal yours, too.
All photos from today’s post are courtesy of Deb Bell and Mercy Ships.
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Go down two flights of stairs on the Africa Mercy and you’ll find you’ve stepped out of a ship and into a busy buzzing hospital. On the wards you’ll find kids playing, patients visiting, and plenty of African music. Listen and you’ll hear conversations in English echoed by translators in French or one of Guinea’s three local languages – the chatter abounds like white noise.
One would expect that a 13-year-old girl would be among the chattiest, but not Memouna.
Memouna’s pronounced facial tumor began above her left eyebrow, spilling down her face to the corner her mouth, displacing her left eye. This tumor, a neurofibroma Memouna has had since birth, left her looking like one side of her face was sliding off, like Dali’s famous melting clock in a desert. From behind the curtain of her deformity, Memouna saw the world with her good right eye. And to her despair, the world saw Memouna.
For 13 years she was taunted for her appearance. Moreover, superstitions run deep in West African culture and physical deformities are believed to be the sinister mark of someone cursed. Memouna was not only teased by peers; she was dismissed as something less than human. From the drooping facial tumor came the source of a broken spirit.
“She was not happy because in Africa people stay away from her. She would cry because she did not understand why no one liked her,” said Memouna’s 17-year-old sister Aminata, the oldest of her nine siblings.
On Wednesday September 26, 2012, Mercy Ships surgeons removed Memouna’s tumor. After her operation, even under layers of bandages, the transformation was profound. Memouna’s profile no longer appeared rough and misshapen; her face had been physically lifted from the weight of the tumor. Nurses hoped her spirits would follow, but countering years of social isolation is a much more invasive procedure.
In the days after her surgery, quiet Memouna said nothing while her father and sister took turns staying at the hospital and speaking on her behalf. “I’m sorry, maybe she will talk another day,” her sister would say.
“It was a long time before I realized she spoke. She was so silent that I didn’t think she could,” said Lynne White, a Mercy Ships ward nurse. “But I can understand it, she went from spending her life keeping to herself with no friends and then she came here and was overwhelmed by the attention.”
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On a night about a week after her surgery, Lynne came into the ward to find Memouna listening to headphones, nodding her head to music and mouthing the words. For the first time, Memouna seemed…happy.
“I couldn’t believe it, so I did whatever I could to try to get a laugh out of her – I started dancing!” Lynne said. “Memouna, oh she just laughed and laughed. It was wonderful.”
Two weeks later Memouna arrived on the dock with her father for a check-up. She kept to herself, waiting on the benches when she was spotted. “Is that my Memouna!?” Lynne said. At her name, Memouna glanced around to find Lynne not walking, but dancing over to her. “It’s you, you’re here!” Lynne cheered, waving her arms in the air.
Memouna clapped her hands and covered her mouth, trying, and failing, to hold back her giggles.
Now, even though she does not give up her laughs easily, we can see the real Memouna. In those moments, there is a cute teenager in a pink sweatshirt and orange nail polish where a timid, downcast child used to be.
With the removal of Memouna’s tumor comes the chance for physical and spiritual healing.