There are parties, and then there are parties.
On the Africa Mercy, no one does a party quite like Ward B.
You may remember that I’ve written before about VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) – a childbirth injury sustained in regions where emergency obstetric care is unavailable. A very rough description would be that, often after several days of labor, women develop a hole in their birth canal that leaks urine. In short, these women need C-sections and when they can’t have them the damage leaves them incontinent, if not dead. They almost always lose the child they were carrying from the trauma of the birth. There are approximately 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who live with VVF, according to the WHO. Two million.
When you are incontinent, you smell. When you smell, people avoid you. In several days’ time, these young women go from being expectant mothers to grieving, injured, and outcast. Over and over again I hear from VVF patients that they have been left by their husbands and rejected by their communities. In all my time in Africa, nothing has moved me as much as the plight of a woman with VVF. She has suffered in ways few of us will ever understand. I think these women must be made of God’s strongest fabric.
After obstetric surgery, our VVF patients stay on Ward B for several weeks recovering. Do you know what happens when you place a bunch of women who have suffered for years in solitude together in the setting of a great big sleepover? While they rejoice over the fact that they’ve just won the healthcare lottery and will receive free surgery that will change their lives forever? Can you imagine this? Well, I’ll tell you: it is a non-stop musical hen party. They braid hair, do crafts, and parade in the hallway singing. I walked in a few days ago to find that they had pushed their beds together. Seriously. Like in The Parent Trap. Then they redecorated the entire ward. If we don’t leave soon there will be a sorority house where the hospital used to be.
When these incredible women are ready to be discharged, we throw a hell of a party. We call it a Dress Ceremony. With full hearts and dry skirts, the patients sing and dance and celebrate their re-entry to society and the emotional restoration they have found through the care and counseling of our amazing medical staff. It’s the happy ending after a long road of suffering that began because they needed a doctor and didn’t have access to one.
This week, we celebrated the journeys of eight patients who no longer suffer with VVF. I’m writing a story about one of these patients named Gisele, so I followed her day from start to finish. Gisele has lived with VVF for more than 20 years. When I saw her yesterday morning, she hugged me and said, “aujord’hui, c’est bon.” Today is good. And it was. It was so good.
It is my great honor to introduce our debutantes, the Beauties of Ward B.
Thanks for reading.
Photography by Catherine Murphy
(+ nifty behind the scenes footage by Josh Callow)
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014
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.
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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Earlier this week I flew with a team to Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, to see potential patients. I captured the day in photos while our medical team screened and scheduled nearly 300 people to come to the ship for further testing and surgery.
Here’s a glimpse of our Brazzaville assessment day:
It was a good day.
Are you prepared to handle the fantastic cuteness that is a little girl with a pink balloon?
I thought so.
but what goes up…
…must come down.
(and speaking of balloons: If you haven’t seen it, there is a short French film called Le Ballon Rouge that will enrich your life immensely. It came to mind as I was editing these photos and I really think the world will be a better place if you put it on your Netflix queue. Just sayin.)
In 2010, a copper mine collapsed in northern Chile, trapping 33 men nearly half a mile underground.
I was a journalism major at the time, and staying on top of headlines was the name of the game. Iran was shopping for nuclear weapons, the buzz-word-du-jour was Wikileaks, and something called an ‘Arab Spring’ was brewing. It was also the summer Sandra Bullock could do no wrong and Tiger Woods was still in time-out. Did we know who Miley Cyrus was yet? I can’t remember.
At first it looked grim for the miner’s 33 families camped out above ground, but two weeks after the collapse the miners were located – all had survived. Suspense mounted as officials tried to figure out how to get them out of an underground house of cards.
A month into the vigil, one of the miner’s wives discovered she was pregnant. She sent a letter down to tell him. What he wrote back to his wife was so touching I saved it on a sticky note:
“Even in the deepest part of the earth, there shines light.”
That sticky note became somewhat of a fixture, one that I never really stop to read anymore. It just sort of faded into the background. But it caught me last week in a quiet moment from the corner of my eye. For the first time in a long time, I remembered the story of that man, the light in the darkness, and the 33 miners who were safely rescued after two months below ground.
– – –
Last Wednesday, we saw more than 7,000 people on Screening Day. The line wrapped up the block and back again. Overall, the day was a success, but there were still thousands of people Mercy Ships could not treat. Thousands.
I visited with a woman named Elodie shortly after she learned that surgeons would operate on her 4-year-old son Emanuel, who has a tumor in his throat. She was exactly as relieved and joyful as you would expect. I smiled back at her, but my mind had wandered. Twenty feet to my right there was a steady flow of “no” patients being escorted toward the exit gate.
Saying “no” is one of the hardest things we have to do, but it’s a stark reality that goes hand in hand with saying “yes.”
I took a break after speaking with Elodie. The only empty bench outside faced the stream of people that, unlike her, had been told no. I sat and tried to focus on the apple I was eating, not the people walking past. Then something caught my attention.
There in the stream I was trying not to focus on was my friend John, carrying this boy in his arms.
There shines light.
Sometimes God shows us that there is light in the darkness, even when that darkness seems all encompassing. And the light seems too feeble to force it all away.
Sometimes God catches our eye with words we have forgotten, from a story from a far corner of the world. Sometimes he sends friends like John walking through our field of vision, carrying a sweet boy we can do nothing for but love. Sometimes God does both of these things at once to see if we will connect the dots.
As the field service begins, I’ll keep my eyes on the job we are here to do. I’m comforted knowing that should I glance right or left, I will see that, oh yeah, God is working over there too.
Which is where people like John fit in. John is our Finance Director, he spent all of Screening Day walking those who could not walk themselves out. His wife Tracey is in the US right now with their two girls. The day after screening, John received some special news:
Tracey is pregnant – and it’s a boy.
Even in the deepest part of the earth, there shines light.
Levo League is a supercool online career resource for women that recently asked me to tell them about my decision to leave my “real job” and go to Africa. It’s not often that I’m the one being interviewed – click on the photo below for the full story about what it is like to volunteer with Mercy Ships, and what it meant for my career.
come say hello to me on Instagram: @clarkemurphy
Going to Africa with Mercy Ships means meeting and working alongside some really cool and talented people. People like Stephan Vanfleteren.
The Belgian photographer visited the Africa Mercy twice in Conakry to photograph Mercy Ships patients. (You might remember when I shared photographs after his first visit…) Well, Stephan received the World Press Photo Award for 1st Place in the Staged Portraits category at a gala in Holland last month. Amazing!
Today’s photos courtesy Bert van Dijk, Mercy Ships Belgium.