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
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.
Let’s say Home Alone 3: Christmas in the Jungle was a real thing.
And let’s say that I was in charge of talent scouting.
And let’s say I held a casting call in a hospital in Congo.
Is it even a question?
Whenever Vernel (6) gets in front of my camera he turns into a total goofball. Since his cleft lip has been fixed he is even sillier. More of his story coming soon.
54 days until Christmas, by the way. Just sayin.
This is 3-year-old Dieuveil. He’s had surgery on the Africa Mercy to repair his cleft lip. Once his bandages came off, a nurse held up a hand mirror. Dieuveil was so fascinated with his new look that he couldn’t stop staring at his reflection.
Neither could we.
Photo by Michelle Murrey, Copyright Mercy Ships 2013
On Thursday we took a patient and his father home to their village. We calculated that our excursion would take 3 hours, but TIA – This is Africa. And when on said continent, you must remember her rules. Starting with:
Rule #1: take the estimated length of of your journey in hours, triple it, add 5, and assume you will need the spare tire on your Land Rover.
Failure to comply with Rule #1 means that you may find yourself with plenty of time for taking long-exposure shots on the side of the ‘road’ in the jungle. My photographer-friend Michelle Murrey made this photo happen. (I was in charge of using our only flashlight to write something, which was going quite well until the Y.)
This is Africa. Never a dull moment.
^ This is not a real day. I just made it up,
but I think it has the potential to catch on! (cc: Hallmark)
Here’s a look at what my friends Mark, Gary, and David
are up to here on the Africa Mercy:
Just a typical day in Congo for them…and me, I guess.
Pretty neat stuff.
Have a great Thursday!
Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey, Copyright: Mercy Ships 2013
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.