I’ve seen a lot since I’ve been in Africa, but I don’t think I understood the phrase “at death’s door” until it met a 2-year-old named Emmanoel. A tumor in the back of Emmanoel’s mouth was blocking his airway to the point that he passed out three times a day.
In the last year and a half, Emmanoel’s parents, Elodie and Maurice, had sought out help for their son wherever they could. At first, doctors in Congo told them that their infant had “just malaria.” But as Emmanoel grew, his breathing worsened. In early 2013, doctors found the culprit: a tumor growing from Emmanoel’s palate was slowly suffocating him. He needed an operation, they said, but it was not one that they could do. Without surgery, they said, Emmanoel would not live to see his third birthday.
Maurice works in a Congolese shipping port. On a hazy Friday in August, he watched a strange ship pull in that was said to be a surgical hospital. He and Elodie counted the days until Mercy Ships doctors would begin seeing surgical candidates. Shortly after we opened our doors, Emmanoel became one of Mercy Ships first patients in Congo – and not a moment too soon. The relief in his mother’s expression was something I’ll never forget.
Neither were the results.
In a rather tricky surgery, the tumor in Emmanoel’s mouth was removed. “I don’t know how he survived this long, I really don’t.” Dr. Mark Shrime, Emmanoel’s surgeon, said.
The night of his surgery I went to check on Emmanoel. In his adult-size hospital bed, the 2-year-old looked even smaller than usual. On either side of him were lots of blinking and beeping machines. Elodie sat at his bedside like a determined watchdog. Her hair was pushed back and she kept one hand on his leg at all times. She had to have been exhausted; yet she was acutely alert. What is it about mothers that kicks in on long nights like these?
“See all of these nurses?” I asked Elodie. “He is in very good hands, you should try to get some sleep.” Elodie nodded, but kept her focus on Emmanoel. The translator laughed and shook his head, “No, I don’t think she will do that,” he said. But that was clear enough already; the tenacity of parents with sick children is the same in every language.
During Emmanoel’s recovery, I watched him become a different child. Now he laughs, gives kisses, and he can finally speak. He’s adorable. In fact, he can say three words in French: ‘mother,’ ‘uncle,’ and, fittingly, ‘tomorrow.’ Emmanoel can’t say ‘father’ yet, but Elodie insisted that Maurice doesn’t mind. “My husband can sleep again,” she said.
Emmanoel turns 3 this month.
We still have a lot of work to do here, but I am encouraged when I remember that tonight, somewhere in Congo, Emmanoel and his parents are sleeping soundly because of a hospital ship powered by donations and volunteers. With each patient, Mercy Ships is changing lives in Africa.