Grace: Before and After

Grace is a 17-year-old from The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). You may remember this story that I shared about her a few weeks ago. The only thing harder than being a teenager is being a teenager who looks extraordinarily different. And, boy, did Grace look different.

If you’ve never seen a young woman with a very large facial tumor, the photo I’m about to share may be hard for you to see. But I know it’s important for me to share – because this is the kind of impact healthcare makes. Grace’s tumor is gone and her life will never be the same, she will never have to suffer the way she’s suffered. 

((text break for happy dance))

When I started with Mercy Ships, I set a goal for myself: to make every patient I write about relatable. There are some days I feel so foolishly lost in another culture that I wonder if I’m an alien. I think to myself, “Am I an alien?” Sometimes it’s hard to see what connects us all. At least at first glance.

But since her surgery, Grace’s real spirit has emerged. And you know what? She’s reminds me of any other 17-year-old I know at home. She cares about her clothes, her hair, and she poses for photographs with her hand on her hip. Maybe Congo feels far away to you, but you still know Grace better than you think. 

When I get past the things that make us different – a language, a tumor, an age difference, the one million cultural gaps – people are people. They just are. It’s usually buried in the little stuff, so you’ve got to pay attention. The best days are the ones when I can see the connections, and I smile, thinking, “Grace and I share the same go-to photo pose!” and “Grace and I both laugh and think my French accent is awful!” We struggle to communicate, but my girl Grace, she gets me.

I’m glad that now the world can see how beautiful I’ve always thought she is.

((happy dance, refrain))

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The Truth About Bernadette

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Bernadette is a runaway.

Three weeks ago, she packed her bags, lied to her mother, and bought a one-way ticket on a train bound for the coast. She said that she would be visiting a cousin, and then she disappeared. But someone like Bernadette does not go unnoticed for long.

 The tumor over Bernadette’s right eye pushed her brow to her cheekbone, blocking her vision like an eye patch. As she journeyed from her hometown to Pointe Noire, she would lift it up with her right hand so she could use both eyes to see her steps, her path, and, finally, her destination: a hospital ship. 

 Now in the hospital ward, Bernadette is a little cheeky, almost rebellious. At about 5’ tall, what she lacks in height she makes up for with spunk. She keeps a match tucked in her hair ‘in case the inside of her ear tickles’ and occasionally erupts with loud, happy laughter. Some days she jumps up and down. Since the operation, Bernadette’s right hand is free to join her left in clapping, pointing, or trying to knit with hot pink yarn. She says she wants to make a chair cushion. The little girl in the next bed watches Bernadette with shy fascination.

 Bernadette had no choice but to lie, she says. When she had a tumor, people would see her coming and go the other way. No one would touch, her except for her mother. Even so, if Mama Philo had known that her daughter was traveling to a hospital ship for surgery, it would have made her sick from worrying. By running away, Bernadette spared her mother from fear.

 Now that her tumor is gone, Bernadette is looking forward to her future. Some day, hopefully soon, she will sell homemade peanut butter to passengers outside the very train station where her great escape began. Bernadette smiles at a thought: not having a tumor is going to be good for business, she says. In fact, she may expand to selling pastries.

 The next time Bernadette buys a one-way train ticket, it will take her home. She hopes that her mother will be too happy to be angry. And if she is mad? Well, Mama Philo will have to forgive eventually, because Bernadette is old enough to make her own decisions. Because Bernadette is 54.

 On a hospital ship in Africa, there is a runaway with a bandage on her head and a match in her hair. And if you ask her, “are you ever too old to spare your mother from worrying?” She will look at you with two eyes and say, no.

 

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Photos of Bernadette courtesy Mercy Ships Photogs:
Debra Bell, Michelle Murrey, & Yours Truly.

Appointment Reminder: August 28th

This is the gate. Ici c’est la porte principale.

The Screening Gate

A week from today, several thousand people will be waiting for this gate to open. They will be watching from this exact vantage point. They will have been waiting for hours; some will have arrived the night before. For many, Mercy Ships Screening Day will be the first time they’ve ever seen a doctor.

It is such a contrast from the kind of waiting I know.

My waiting starts with a clipboard and a ballpoint pen. An armed chair, maybe a fish tank. The View is on mute. I forgot my insurance card. Quick phone call. Scribble numbers. Apologize. Return paperwork. Flip through Time. Study finds correlation between global warming and ADHD. Good grief. A door opens. Someone calls my name. Nice to see you again.

 Again, she says

Because I get to go to the doctor every year.

 Credit photo: Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - Guinea

 We will see several thousand people next Wednesday. Their waiting started years ago.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - Guinea

Screening Day can be overwhelming. No matter how many times I see it, the magnitude of need will always be incomprehensible. When 350+ of us arrive on site before sunrise, we’ll already be outnumbered by those standing in line.

 Photo By: Michelle Murrey; Screening Day Lines in Conakry

 

So to level the head count, I signed you up to come help us. Yes, you have an appointment on August 28th to meet me at the gate.

Here’s how to get there:

Pray.
For those of us here, and our patients.
For our doctors and nurses, they will spend the day making heavy decisions.
For our translators, who will be delivering news that’s not always easy.
For the people Mercy Ships cannot help.
& for all of those we will.

 

Prayer is how we take care of each other when we are far apart. So thank you for continuing to take such good care of us over here. 

We can feel it, I promise.

The Most Heartbreaking Condition You’ve Never Heard Of

A story I wrote about a patient in our VVF Program ran in The Huffington Post earlier this week. Don’t know what VVF is? Neither did I. Click the photo below to read and learn about what Mercy Ships + partner Johnson & Johnson are doing to help. 

Photo By: Michelle Murrey

Thanks for reading.

Floating Hospital Arrives in Pointe Noire

Riding into town on a hospital ship is a great way to feel popular.

We were greeted on Friday by a dock full of happy people, it was a blast. Here are some images of our joyful welcome: 

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the deck crew is happy to see the pilot boat

 

ready for land!

ready for land!

 

bienvenue!

bienvenue!

 

tying up the moorings.

tying up the moorings.

 

Now, it’s time to unpack the hospital and get ready for Screening Day, which will be August 28th. 

More stories from Africa to follow soon!

Let me tell you about Jaka

There is a universal principle of childhood physics that we all remember well: the joy of spinning in circles. Perhaps it was spinning while locking hands with a playmate, in a teacup at Disney World, dancing in pirouettes, or simply turning in place – it was a thrill to send our surroundings into a kaleidoscopic blur. This was followed by a dizzy fit of giggles – at least until our internal compasses caught up, and the world came back into focus. Do you remember?

Four years ago, Jaka was spinning around in circles with some other children while her mother was at the market. Around and around, arms out, chin up, her face full of smiles. But Jaka lost her balance, and she fell into her aunt’s cooking fire. Jaka landed in the burning coals on her left side with her arm up. A pot of boiling water her aunt had prepared for rice spilled over the little girl’s shoulders, arms and back.

Fanta, Jaka’s mother, ran home from the market and took her to the hospital in Conakry. In order to be seen by doctors, the hospital required a payment of 1.5 million Guinea Francs at the gate – just over $200 – Fanta couldn’t afford admission.  Fanta returned home with Jaka, unable to ease her daughter’s agony. For the next eight months, Jaka laid on her little stomach, tethered to the ground by unimaginable pain. Each day, her mother fanned her, trying to offer Jaka whatever relief she could.

Credit photo: Bright EffoweAs Jaka’s burns healed without medical care or rehabilitation, her left shoulder and arm contracted. Jaka’s skin began to grow back in such a way that her arm became stuck to her side from her armpit to elbow.  Fanta feared that Jaka would lose the ability to move her arm. Still unable to afford any medical treatment, Fanta tried to treat the problem herself.

Fanta forced Jaka’s arm away from her side three times, trying to prevent the contracture. Fanta described each attempt, saying that she and Jaka both cried themselves to exhaustion. On the fourth try, Jaka begged her mother to stop because the pain was so unbearable. “If you try to pull it open again, I will die. The pain will kill me,” Jaka said to her mother. So Fanta allowed Jaka’s arm to heal on its own, stuck to her side.

Today, 9-year-old Jaka is a patient on the Africa Mercy hospital ship, recovering from a free plastic surgery that released her arm and grafted skin. Deep burn marks cover her entire upper body – her head, neck, shoulders, back and arms – but no one notices because they are entranced by this little girl’s adorable gap-toothed smile.

Jaka and her mother, Fanta.

Jaka and her mother, Fanta.

Credit Photo: Michelle Murrey;

 

Sweeping, washing and fighting – these are the activities Jaka says she will get to do with her restored arm. Laundry might not be appealing to many, but participating in household chores is a normalcy Jaka has never known. “I am so happy,” Jaka says. “When I go home, I will work all the time because I can.” (Fanta admits she is glad for this enthusiasm.) Free of her deformity, Jaka will also now be able to go to school for the first time.

As for fighting, Jaka is one of ten children, and she happens to be very ticklish. With her new arm, she will be able to hold her own the next time she is picked on by one of her older brothers or sisters. She was ashamed to go among her siblings and friends when her arm was stuck to her side because they would tease her. “Now they will see me and say, ‘Jaka has become well!’” she says. Then they will invite her to sit with them and watch the cars go by their house.

From her hospital bed, Jaka is all giggles – she can hardly contain her excitement for her future of playing, going to school and watching cars. But Jaka’s favorite part about her restorative surgery and rehabilitation is even simpler than that: “Clapping!” With her arm free, Jaka can clap with both hands.

Now there’s a happy ending worthy of applause.

Credit Photo: Michelle Murrey;

 

Pre-op photo courtesy Bright Effowe; other photos courtesy Michelle Murrey. Copyright Mercy Ships 2013.

In case you missed it – check out Mercy Ships featured on CBS!

Psssst…I know you’re busy, but can I steal you away for 12 minutes and 7 seconds? I’d like to show you where I live and the people I work with. Click here for my pal Scott to tell you what’s up: 

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50141230n

To South Africa and Back

Hmmmm…what should I tell you what should I tell you? (drumming my fingers on my chin.) 

I’ve actually been back in Conakry for almost a week now. Each day since has been one where I tell myself ‘today, I will blog about South Africa.’ But the task before me is daunting because it requires capturing TWO WEEKS for you, which is hard when you have as much to say as I usually do, combined with the fact that I recently read that successful articles/posts are brief because readers these days have a very short attention spans. In fact, we have now surpassed the limit of words (110) most people are willing to pay attention for, so those of you still here can give yourselves a little pat on the back for having particularly adept concentration skills. Welcome.

So…it’s not all going to fit, but here are this year’s nominees for best moments in South Africa, 2013:

1) I was able to be there for almost every bandage removal following the 51 cataract surgeries done during Mercy Vision’s outreach at Zithulele Hospital in the Eastern Cape:

Mr. H

I was there – – I watched as this man opened his eyes and saw for the first time in three years!

Moments like that are indescribable. It might compare to: watching a parent hold their newborn for the first time…watching a family welcome home a loved one in the armed forces…watching when the minister says ‘you may now kiss the bride’…you get the idea – assorted Hallmark moments.

These are moments where your spirits are uplifted and are so magical that you aren’t really thinking, your mind is just sort of delightfully wordless and you are smiling in spite of yourself because you are so happy for the person in front of you. Or you’re watching an episode of Extreme Home Makeover.

But I have to tell you that the moment when Mr. H had his bandages off was special in a unique way that all of those other moments I just mentioned can’t match. You want to know why? Because all of those comparable moments have one thing in common…you have to be able to SEE to experience them.

So when I got to SEE a man SEE, it wasn’t just remarkable because he was blind and now he isn’t…but because he has been missing those moments for years, and now he doesn’t have to anymore. I watched the beginning for a man who I hope has many sweet, hair-raising, delightfully wordless moments ahead of him. I’m even smiling at my computer screen like a total goob right now.

Ok, enough happy talk, our attention spans are at stake. And someone might see me.

2) I got to do lots of South African things that were very South African-y. This included using the phrases ‘hectic’ or ‘just now’ whenever I could, eating some cookie-type things called rusks, eating some donut-type dessert called ‘Cook Sisters’ and drinking a lot of rooibos tea. Amazing. All of it. If you haven’t made a trip there yet, don’t miss out on South Africa. Maybe even stop by Hole in the Wall:

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3) I took a lot of photos (1,156…)

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& I met a lot of incredible people. Here are some of their lovely faces:

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In Conakry, cameras are not really welcome, but the cultural setting in South Africa was different. I love the question ‘may I take your photograph?’ A camera has given me opportunities for interaction with locals I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Thank you, Nikon.

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Many, many great moments. More to come soon.

With all of this traveling around Africa (I’ll have to dedicate a separate post to African airports…) I realized that the next time I get on a plane will be in just a few months to fly to New York then Houston for a visit home before my next adventure begins in Congo-Brazzaville!

In June the ship will sail to Tenerife, Spain for routine maintenance before our next field service begins in Pointe Noire. I’m heading home while the ship goes into dry-dock (‘the shop’) and then coming back in time to sail from Tenerife to Congo. This outreach will be the Africa Mercy’s first time in Central Africa; we ‘set sail’ in July.

When I made the decision to come to Africa in March 2012…I think I said something like “hey I’m going to Africa for 6 months, bye!” Well, I’ve committed to stay until December 2013. So by 6, I actually meant 18.

Surprise?

Which is why a trip home this summer, which will be my first time back to the states in more than 10 months (where does time go? where?) is going to be such a treat. I can’t wait to indulge in Mexican food Every. Single. Day. while throwing around the word y’all as often as possible and driving an automatic-transmission car around in effortless circles between meals at El Tiempo on Washington.

There are also some dear friends I can’t wait to hug in Manhattan, where I will no doubt undergo some culture shock not unlike that portrayed by the character Mimi-Siku when he visits the Big Apple in the major motion picture Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) starring Tim Allen. Stay tuned for that post sometime in June.

Great few weeks behind me, and much to look forward to with Mercy Ships. I’m not done telling you stories from South Africa, but I’m approaching 1,000 words (!) yikes.

Also, my lunch break is over.

Adios =) 

 

Come Fly With Me

Did you know that Mercy Ships Global isn’t just based on a hospital ship? Did you know we have 16 national offices all over the world? 

Our South Africa office has organized an off-ship project called Mercy Vision that will begin at the end of this month. Mercy Vision will be held at a local hospital in Mthatha (hometown of Nelson Mandela, or so Wikipedia says) and will provide free cataract surgeries to hundreds of patients who otherwise would have had no access to treatment. Blind people are going to see again because of Mercy Vision.

 An awesome eye surgeon named Dr. Strauss, who hails from Tyler, TX, US of A, will travel there with from the ship to perform cataract surgeries AND to train local surgeons. Because the only thing better than healing patients is healing them while teaching local doctors how to go out and heal even more patients of their own. 

For the purpose of covering the program and generating written content for Mercy Ships, I am heading to South Africa in a few days to join the team of 10 that will be there. And while the anticipation of boarding an airplane always make me happy, that happiness is magnified greatly if the destination is South Africa’s beautiful Eastern Cape to watch blind people be healed and then write about it while simultaneously keeping an eye out for elephants.

 Making the trip even more of an adventure is the fact that I have a quick layover in Côte d’Ivoire, then Togo, followed by an overnight layover in Addis Ababa. In case you have not recently taken a look at a map of Africa, allow me to refresh your memory:

I spent way too long drawing that airplane.

I spent way too long drawing that airplane. (map: WorldAtlas.com)

 


Notice anything? Yep. It appears that from West Africa, Addis Ababa is in no way a convenient pit stop. Why am I flying by way of Ethiopia, then? Because this route was a better way than the only other alternative…which was via Frankfurt, Germany. (You don’t get a map for that one.) Luckily I am now used to the fact that on most days, nothing in Africa is easy, least of all traveling around it. As any parents would be, mine were just tickled to hear that their daughter would be cruising around the whole of sub-Saharan Africa for  two days. Please send them your prayers and blood pressure medication. Addis Ababa or bust. 

I look forward to spending this coming weekend in Africa in the most general sense. No place in particular, just the whole thing: Africa. Everywhere. Nowhere. I’ll happily be be-bopping over this glorious continent, requiring a horrifying amount of jet fuel while searching for people who speak English so I can find a place to re-charge my iPod in various airports. Then after Mercy Vision, I’ll retrace my steps back again to Guinea and sleep for a week.

So in the (likely) event that Internet/time is limited for the rest of this month, don’t you worry – I haven’t fallen off the map. I’m just on an airplane cruising around, somewhere high above it. 

See you in March!

p.s. Oui & oui, I am on Instagram/Twitter: @clarkemurphy 

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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.

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