Putting Hope in the Headlines

Hi everyone, bear with me. Today’s post is a bit longer, but I ask that you please read it to the end.

In early November I came to you asking for you to pray for a man who was about to go into surgery. The surgery was complicated and risky and the odds were not in his favor. The man’s name was Thierno; he was slowly being suffocated and starved by the tumor in his mouth. (In fact, his condition was so dire that his case was initially referred to our Palliative Care [Hospice Care] team.)

Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - Guinea

In the West tumors are removed years before they grow to this size. To give you an idea of how emaciated Thierno was on Screening Day, notice how his leg is folded into the chair with him; his purple pants barely stayed up on his waist.


 I won’t be able to capture with words the immense suffering Thierno endured for the five years he lived with this tumor because I will never fully comprehend it myself. I think his words to one hospital worker captured it best: “please, take the tumor, or take my life.”

 The day before his surgery, Thierno said that if our team was interested he would tell us the story of his journey. So privately in an empty ward, I sat down with him and his mother. It was a struggle: Thierno was tired, severely malnourished even after putting on weight through a feeding tube. His mother cried. The room was dense with hopelessness. This tumor had been growing for years and he had given up long ago. Thierno was the most hopeless person I’ve ever seen. I didn’t blame him. We were all drained afterward.

I wondered then why Thierno offered to share his story. At the time I didn’t think that an interview was a good idea (admittedly because I was terrified, what does one ask a man who might die the next day?) I thought perhaps it was because he needed a distraction and the interview could keep him busy…or perhaps it was for lack of a better idea.

 Since that day I have realized something more: in the 11th hour of Thierno’s heavy hopelessness, a strange hospital ship showed up. Even though the hospital ship didn’t know if it could help, it still must have counted for something; somewhere deep within him a tiny seed of Want was planted. Thierno wanted to hope.

With that interview Thierno was betting on himself – in spite of the odds against him, in spite of the risk, in spite of the years of misery leading up to it. I think he gave us a ‘Before’ shot because somewhere inside he needed to acknowledge the possibility of an ‘After.’ He began to tell us his story because he wanted to believe it wasn’t over yet.

 As you may remember from my post the next day, Hope made a comeback. The risky surgery went perfectly. Thierno lived.

In case I’ve understated it: Thierno’s survival was a miracle. When the full story I am writing for Mercy Ships is completed, I look forward to sharing it with you here.

Photo: Debra Bell

 Are you still with me? I want to skip ahead a few months to the real snapshot of Thierno’s story that has been on my mind and that I came here to tell you. I haven’t known exactly how to share it, or even if I should. But for some reason today feels right. Having said that, I wrote (most of) the rest of this post two months ago:

On Friday, December 11th Thierno went home from the hospital. Five years of suffering. Four pounds of tumor. Nine hours of surgery: Home.

I accompanied Thierno and his mother with five other Mercy Ships volunteers. When we arrived, Thierno’s family surrounded him, hugging, crying, hardly able to believe who stood before them: a man who they thought would certainly die but is now healed. His grandmother kissed our hands and babbled things in a language I don’t know while she smiled through what few teeth she had left. I wished I could have told her that I didn’t do anything worth thanking me for, that I am the lucky one who gets to be a part of all this.

Djenabou and one of Thierno's nurses, Hannah.

Djenabou and Thierno’s nurse, Hannah.


 Thierno’s mom, Djenabou, wore a beautiful red, blue and green traditional dress (looking about ten years younger than she did when Thierno was admitted, I might add.) We gathered under some trees to avoid the African sun while a hen and chicks pecked around nearby under some colorful clotheslines. It was funny how it could feel like the middle of Spring in the dead of Winter. Maybe with slow motion, some background music, popcorn, and a box of tissues, it would have been a happy ending to Thierno: The Movie. Friday was the end of a long road of suffering for Thierno and his family. It was a homecoming I will never forget.

Saturday afternoon, December 12, my spirits were still high until I checked my email, where I found a message from my mom. In it she referenced a place I had never heard of called Newtown.

 I didn’t have to go far on the Internet to find the heart-wrenching headlines. How weird it was to have gone 24 hours so detached, I thought, to be in a corner of the world where breaking news didn’t even find me. How luxurious my oblivion had been. A few stories were all I was up for. The last one I read re-constructed the scene of the crime and examined the gruesome timeline of events. Which is when a certain realization shook me…

 It was during those exact moments Friday afternoon – the very hours that we spent in Thierno’s shaded courtyard surrounded by tearful, happy aunts, uncles and jumping children – that 5 time zones and 10,000 miles away, a simultaneous tragedy was occurring at an elementary school in Connecticut. What contrast, what juxtaposition – what a powerful realization. In a world big enough, and broken enough, I’m sure that with every twitch of the second-hand there is simultaneous despair and joy. Yet rarely are those concurrent moments revealed to us.


Brenda, Thierno’s nurse, and his grandmother.

Brenda, Thierno’s nurse, and his grandmother.


I don’t know what the news of the Newtown school shooting is now in the states; I am far away. I suppose it has moved out of the spotlight, hopefully to a place where those involved can begin to seek peace. Ask any of the patients I’ve written about – even in the most pure-hearted journalism, eventually the cameras and the people pack up and leave…and life goes on.

I still don’t know quite what to make of the alignment between Thierno’s triumph and Newtown’s tragedy. It is definitely high on the list of questions I’d like to review with God. But here is what I do know: on that day before Thierno’s surgery, I felt and saw the weight of hopelessness. In the air, in his eyes, in my throat, in French, in English. Hopelessness all but fogged the camera lens. It wasn’t until later that I was able to recognize the hope that lingered, the shred of light that had propelled Thierno to tell his story. Now I think I’ve seen a miracle; I’ve seen Spring in the dead of Winter.

I’ve studied journalism long enough to know that happy endings don’t often make the news. Today I hope Thierno can be fuel for you, a booster shot of hopefulness to carry you through the hard-hitting headlines of this broken planet. (For there no doubt will be more.) Life is a story plagued with the uncertainty of happy endings. But never give up all hope, because in spite of it all, it’s worth betting on.

At least that’s what Thierno taught me.

It's a wonderful thing to see a patient from this view, but is always hard to say goodbye.

It’s a wonderful thing to see a patient from this view while waving goodbye.


Thierno and his aunt.

Thierno and his aunt.

See? Spring in December.

See? Spring in December.


Most of today’s photos courtesy of Mercy Ships awesome photographer Michelle Murrey.


13 responses

  1. Profound statement: “What contrast, what juxtaposition – what a powerful realization. In a world big enough, and broken enough, I’m sure that with every twitch of the second-hand there is simultaneous despair and joy. Yet rarely are those concurrent moments revealed to us.”




  2. Reblogged this on Jesus saving me from me… and commented:
    I don’t know if I’ve ever reblogged anything before, but this one is so worth the read. This story is written by one of my shipmates. She’s an awesome girl I have the privilege of calling friend. This is a more in depth story about Thieno, the man with the giant facial tumor I’ve told you about. In light of the awesome 60 Minutes report, I want to just keep that momentum going. I want you to know beyond a shadow of a doubt how much God loves His creation, how much He loves a man named Thieno who lives in Guinea west Africa.

    His… Michelle
    Philippians 1:20


  3. Catherine,
    Your blogs are so inspiring and can be so heartwrenching. I was excited to learn of your writing and life experiences in South Africa from your dad! He was so kind to share that with me, and I have been sharing your blogs with several friends and family members. You are such a talented writer and your heartfelt stories are so touching. You truly are a blessing! I know your parents are extremely proud of you and the work you are doing. What amazing life experiences you’re having! It’s been ages since I’ve seen you but I do hope our paths will cross in the not too distant future. I will pray for your safekeeping so far from home and will continue to enjoy all of your wonderful stories! With love, Pam


  4. Pingback: The Patient Who Didn’t Need Me « My Life Aquatic

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