the man who walked for days to get to a hospital

I still can’t quite believe this story, but here it is. Sambany was onboard being treated while I was in Madagascar in February. The strength some people have is incredible.

Thanks for watching!


<p><a href=”″>Sambany</a&gt; from <a href=””>Mercy Ships</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>]



Next time you have 4 minutes to spare, I’d love to tell you an incredible story about a fashion designer in Congo who once was blind.
(Happy Ending Alert: he isn’t anymore.)

Eyes of the Beholder on

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy



Ravette: Before and After

Back around Thanksgiving I wrote a about Ravette – the little girl with the enormous smile who had surgery to correct her inverted knees. Well, now our little lady is out of her casts and done with her physical therapy. Not only do her knees bend the right way, but she could out-strut us all in a walk-off. Someone get this girl a runway.

Needless to say, Ravette’s before and after photos are orthopedic gold. Take a look:



Are you smiling at your computer screen like a total softie now? 

Ya me too.


 Photos by Josh Callow, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

the anatomy of a goodbye hug

On Monday we waved goodbye to Benjamine, a 12-year-old burn patient who has been on board for several months. It was beautifully bittersweet.

Benjamine has been our resident Miss Congeniality. For a while after her surgery she was in an airplane splint, which meant that both arms were stuck out to her sides. Did that hurt? Yes. Did she complain? Nope.

Even though each day was Benjamine vs. Door Frame,  she always had a darling smile on her face. We are going to miss having her around.

I watched as some of the wonderful medical staff who cared for Benjamine said au revoir yesterday. 

These are their hugs.



Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy








The End. Thanks for reading.

Today’s photos are by yours truly.
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

For more updates from Africa: @clarkemurphy
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Winning Aicha

Today I want to tell you a story about a little girl. 

Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Once, when I was looking for Aicha, I found her hiding behind her father. Since the day she arrived on the ward, she had been upset. I thought I could lift her spirits. I assumed cheering up a four-year-old would be easy, but, as I approached, she gripped her father’s arm. She looked terrified. Aicha’s big brown eyes met mine, and they told me something sad – she did not want to be found. 

Aicha was burned in a house fire. Flames had licked the sides of her face, the backs of her arms, her thighs, shoulders, wrists, neck, and hips. Her right ear was missing. Because she went without proper wound treatment, the skin on her elbows, arms, and sides contracted. This caused her skin to regrow in such a way that her inner elbows became stuck to her forearms.

 Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Aicha received surgery onboard the Africa Mercy to release her contractures and graft new skin, but her glassy eyes remained round and wary. This little body had endured a lot in its four years, including heartache. The fire that left her this way had also killed her mother. Underneath Aicha’s wounds was a child scarred by anxiety, grief, and an inconsolable fear.

From her hospital bed in the furthest corner of the ward, Aicha could see everything. Abdom, her father, sat on a stool at her bedside and smiled apologetically to people who sent her into tears just by glancing in their direction. Abdom could not leave Aicha’s side without sending her into hysterics. He was the only comfort she had left. During bandage changes, she called out for her mother.

Aicha was scared of everyone. It seemed like there was no remedy for her fear. She didn’t care for toys, or treats, or hugs. She wasn’t interested in playing games. To approach her with a smile could induce panic. We are professionals when it comes to winning the hearts of even the most stubborn kids, but Aicha was different. Aicha was heartbroken.


Because Aicha’s recovery took several months, time was on our side. Slowly, she regained her mobility with rehabilitation exercises. Slowly, she became curious about the strange people in blue scrubs who brought her balloons and sat with her father. Sometimes these people in blue sang and danced. Sometimes they gathered in a circle by the door and bowed their heads. From her corner bed, Aicha watched.

When Aicha was well enough to go outside, she liked to sit on the deck in her father’s lap. Maybe it was just the sunshine, but she started to warm to us. Her grip on Abdom’s shirt loosened a little.


There were days that involved dressing changes and bitter medicine (on those days, we lost some ground), but they were followed by days with little smiles. We took what we could get. Winning over a broken heart means victory comes in shattered pieces.


Then came patience and love. Over those next few weeks, we loved Aicha until she asked to color. We waited until she smiled at our silly faces. We gave her space. We pretended not to notice when she took a little step away from her father’s side. We played it cool when she explored the ward on a scooter. Each time Aicha left the safety of her corner, there we were. We were safe, too.

Then came the day she fell into our arms. Winning Aicha was worth the wait.


Today, Abdom no longer carries the burden of being his daughter’s only comfort. When he leaves for work, he knows she is alright in his absence. “You have set me free. You have given me my life back,” Abdom says.


Now if I go looking for Aicha in the hospital, I know I won’t find her, and that’s okay. It’s not because she’s hiding – Aicha stopped doing that a while ago. It’s because she doesn’t need a hospital anymore. Today, Aicha is at home in Congo – hopeful, healed, and unafraid.


Photos by Michelle Murrey and Debra Bell, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

Today’s story was made possible by some wonderful volunteers who helped Aicha (and me) along the way. Thanks, Josh Callow, Jasmine Bursey, Erin Williams, Chris Glasgow, and Deb Louden. 

My Funny Valentine

In January 2013 I met a funny lady named Hasanatu in Conakry, Guinea. I quickly realized that she was the batty African grandmother I never knew I’d always wanted. Hasanatu guessed her age was somewhere between 60-65, but she couldn’t be sure. Frankly, she told me, she didn’t see the point in counting. “Years are just years.”

 Hasanatu had been found by our Screening Team on a trip through Guinea’s interior. The tumor on her jaw was enormous. At that point of my time with Mercy Ships, it was one of the biggest I’d ever seen. On the day Hasanatu was supposed to be admitted, she no-showed. Like traveling, communicating in West Africa is never easy. Someone from the ship managed to contact her family. “We put her in a taxi to Conakry two weeks ago,” they said. Hmm, we said. Then where is she?

 Meanwhile, someone familiar with Mercy Ships spotted Hasanatu in town (she was hard to miss). He pointed her in the right direction. Hasanatu finally showed up on the dock to the collective exhale of our Screening Team.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION OF MAXILLO FACIAL PATIENT, interior screening patient. GNC18600_DJALLO_Hasanato. Patient story

The night before her surgery I paid her a visit. “Mama Hasanatu, where exactly have you been?” I said. She smiled like she was considering letting me in on some adventurous secret but then dismissively flipped her hands in the air. “It is too long of a story, I would never finish it.”

 The next evening after her surgery, I remember writing this:


Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo Facial patient Hasanatu one day post op from surgery. (Patient Story)

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo Facial patient Hasanatu one day post op from surgery

During her recovery, Hasanatu became our resident matriarch. Somewhere along the way I stopped visiting her for the story I was working on – and I visited her just to listen.

Hasanatu told me about the children she had lost to malaria and about her late husband. She told me about her favorite dishes and she desperately tried to teach me Pular, her native language. This strong, spunky, Guinean woman was a thing to behold. She talked so much that I teased our translator that he was going to lose his voice. The story I would later write actually opens with this lede: “You’d better find a translator quick – because Hasanatu has a lot to say.”

 When she had made enough progress, Hasanatu was moved from the hospital to our outpatient treatment center in town. On Valentine’s Day last year I went to see her. When I came in she grabbed my hand, walking me to the far side of the porch to sit down. I distinctly remember being flattered. Everyone’s favorite outspoken grandmother wanted me to sit next to her. She gave me a wreath she’d made for me to wear. I thanked her and roughly explained that in the U.S. it was Valentine’s Day, a day when you celebrate the people in your life that you love. She seemed pleased with her timing and taught me how to say grandmother in Pular.


Since I left Guinea, Hasanatu has crossed my mind regularly. In our morning Comms meeting Tuesday her name came up. Being the legendary little thing that she is, we spent several minutes lost in stories about her. I laughed especially hard telling about the time that Sia, a Guinean translator and a good friend of mine, found Hasanatu walking down the hospital hallway toward the stairs in her gown and bandages – she was carrying all of her belongings. “Mama H, where are you going?” Sia said. Hasanatu responded that she was homesick and tired of being a hospital patient. She wanted to go home to her village, and if we really loved her like we said we did, we would let her leave. Sia explained that it was because we loved her that she had to stay until she was fully healed. Sia escorted a reluctant Hasanatu back to her ward, where I am sure she complained about the air conditioning. (“We are going to freeze,” she used to say.)

While I hate that this sweet woman was homesick, the image of little Mama H in her hospital gown, head wrap, and suitcase still makes me laugh to tears. If not for Sia, I’m fairly sure that Hasanatu could have negotiated her way past the security guards and down the gangway. Her strong-willed attitude was not to be messed with. Hasanatu was 90 pounds of sass and antics that you couldn’t help but love.

Thanks to that spunky little lady, I began my Tuesday with belly laughs. I walked out of the conference room wondering how Mama H was doing and if she ever thinks about me, her ‘white granddaughter.’ I couldn’t have known then how grateful I would be later for our morning of memories and laughter.

It was a few hours before I saw the email. During that time, I got to work and I had a cup of coffee. I enjoyed that nonspecific happiness that comes with having a good day. I was sitting in a meeting with my manager, Leigh, when I glanced at the email on my phone. A shocked, coincidental, emotion washed over me.

I handed the phone to Leigh because I wasn’t sure how to tell her. Mama Hasanatu passed away Thursday, February 20th at home in her village, the email said. A year after a life-changing surgery, she died from an unrelated illness. Leigh and I were both quiet for a bit,  then she looked up and said the perfect thing like she usually does:

“Hasanatu was healed first, that is what’s important.”

I knew Leigh was right, but I had to go through a series of other emotions before I settled on gratitude. Hasanatu had barely been healed a year. The surgery, recovery, and pain – for what? In a far-away African village she lived for more than three decades with an unbearable tumor because she had no access to healthcare. Then one day a caravan of medical people in Land Rovers came through and offered to change her life. She came to the ship, she had the massive tumor removed, and she recovered. Shouldn’t she at least get ten good years on this side of such an experience? As the storyteller who put Hasanatu’s journey on paper, I assumed that her story was just beginning. A year later, I figured that she’d be leading conga lines, giving out free advice, and eating cassava with whatever teeth she had left. Sure, she was older than our other patients, but with that much spunk I suspected she could outlive me. It didn’t seem fair.

Gratitude eventually came. I don’t know if I would have found it yet if not for the fact that earlier that morning I’d been overwhelmed with gratitude for Hasanatu’s life. The stories my teammates and I shared just before we learned she had died were part of a beautiful coincidence that I don’t think was a coincidence at all.

It is painful to know Mama H is gone, but I think she would agree that the last year of her life was her biggest adventure yet. All of us here who knew Mama H carry with us many more stories that we will tell again and again. My future is filled with reminiscing about that adorable firecracker in a headscarf who called me her granddaughter.

Hasanatu will always be my favorite funny Valentine – and the stories I tell about her will always leave me laughing in the end.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Group photos of the Crew that donated blood to patient Hasanatu - Maxillo Facial patient (Patient Story)

Photos courtesy Deb Bell and Michelle Murrey, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

Little boy, big miracle

A version of today’s story originally appeared last week in The Huffington Post.
Click here to read the original.

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.

Photo Credit: Ryan Cardoza. Screening 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.

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey;


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. 

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey; Copyright Mercy Ships 2013

A version of today’s story originally appeared last week in The Huffington Post. Click here for more.

“We came to Africa for the work, we stayed for the people.”

Tonight on a quiet street in Congo, 16 people sat around a long table on a warm patio. In their group were people from Canada, Australia, Norway, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the U.S. The mosquitoes were biting, but it didn’t rain. 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy;

To humor the Americans on the night before Thanksgiving, everyone went around the table and said what we were thankful for:


10 a.m. coffee breaks.

Air conditioning.

Our families who miss us, but love us enough to let us go.


(…and Toyotas with winches.)

The responsibility we’ve been trusted with to do the things we do…and the privilege.

The little moments when we enjoy something that reminds us of home.

The people we live and work with who make us happy.

And a little girl named Ravette.


“We came to Africa for the work, we stayed for the people.”



Ravette is a 9-year-old orthopedics patient who always has a smile on her face. Always.

When Ravette was little she suffered from a leg deformity caused by quinine, a drug used to treat malaria. When the medicine was mistakenly injected into her nerve instead of the muscle, it caused her knees to grow in the wrong direction. Ravette is still in casts, but she’s learning to walk again.

This morning Ravette hobbled to my office. To get here from the hospital, you have to walk through a common area we call the café. It’s unusual to have patients walk through this part of the ship, so she quickly snagged everyone’s attention. That’s when the clapping started. Each table she walked past gave a little cheer. I’ve never seen a child with a smile as big as hers was today. 

If she had been at our table tonight, Ravette would have said she was thankful to walk again. Then she would have giggled as she listened to 16 people go around and say what they were thankful for. 

Because they were all thankful for Ravette.

What are you thankful for this year? 

The Vernel Effect

Vernel is too cute to be angry with and now he knows it.

Vernel is a wily 6-year-old patient who is probably up to something that he’ll get away with. Why will he get away with it? Because it’s too hard to stay mad at him. When he looks up at you, with his lovable, mischievous, grin, he mesmerizes you with his sweetness and your only conscious thought is about how darling he is. Were you about to reprimand him? You can’t remember.

I call this The Vernel Effect.


Vernel’s story began in a fishing village eight hours from Congo’s port city of Pointe Noire. The cleft on the right side of his upper lip revealed his pink gums and front teeth as it stretched up to his nose. Vernel has been bullied for looking different, his dad says. The other children in their village teased him to the point he would come home crying. This baffles me…who could possibly have the heart to make Vernel cry?

I met Vernel when his father brought him to the Africa Mercy for surgery. In an environment where cleft lips are embraced, I watched Vernel quickly come into his own. He never had to worry about being teased here; the staff doted on Vernel from the moment he stepped into the Admissions Tent. We made him balloons, we let him play with the Djembe drums, and we discovered that he is a total clown in front of the camera. On this ship in Africa, Vernel finally found his audience: 350 people who see beyond his deformity. By the time surgeons repaired Vernel’s cleft lip, he’d forgotten he had it.


But there is one thing you can’t let yourself forget about Vernel: he is a ninja when it comes to tickling.

That mischievous smile on Vernel’s face is there for a reason. First, he will curl up in your arms or give you a hug or a drooly kiss. Then, in accordance with The Vernel Effect, you will let your guard down. And that’s when he’ll strike. Think you’re not ticklish? Think again. Vernel has no mercy – especially if you have recently tickled him. This is a 6-year-old with an appetite for vengeance.


This is my friend Hope. She didn’t stand a chance.


Sadly, Vernel couldn’t stay here forever. I was part of a team that drove him home. Today, Vernel is doing great and, might I add, looking quite handsome. 


When it was time for Vernel to be discharged, he called his grandmother to tell her he was coming home. “I’m a handsome boy now,” he said. 


I loved watching this little boy realize his charm. I know Vernel won’t be the last patient to undergo a transformation here.


don’t fall for it.



The End.

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