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=”https://vimeo.com/123209406″>Sambany</a&gt; from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mercyships”>Mercy Ships</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>]

On leaving: why saying goodbye to the Africa Mercy is the hardest

I’ve worked in the field, lived in the field, and I’ve seen poverty up close. I’ve grieved for the mothers I’ve seen lose children, for my unlikely friends who were taken too soon, and for every person who comes to us that must be turned away because we simply can’t treat them. And although living there is hard, leaving there is harder.
 

Since 2012 I’ve lived with one foot in a world that lacks basic healthcare, and with my other foot on a hospital ship, where my neighbors are some of the world’s most talented doctors and nurses. Have I lived in Africa, or just beside it? Because none of this suffering is ever happening to me, it’s happening in front of me – which reminds me of the unfair truth about the time I spend in these countries: I can leave

Yesterday, I left.

My time onboard these last 2 weeks was very different than before. I spent most days in meetings two decks above the hospital – not in my preferred spot, which is playing bedside jenga while the ortho kids put stickers on my face and paint my nails neon yellow. Still, I snuck down to the hospital hallway at night where I could peek through the skinny rectangular windows of the Africa Mercy wards. It was here that I heard our patients singing, saw children dancing, and remembered the impact of medicine again. I was reminded that although my job was happening upstairs in conference rooms and on long-distance phone calls, it’s what’s happening in the narrow ORs and corridors of this ship that I do what I do.

As I write this, I am on a plane to London. I (reluctantly) left Madagascar and its beautiful people and a ship full of incredible patients. I can’t stay any longer because now my focus is to help market Mercy Ships in the West. Though it pains me to go, I leave knowing that we don’t have to be on the ground to be a part of the impact, and that’s exciting.

Sometimes you have to leave when you’re here to stay.

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 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.

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

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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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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:

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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don’t fall for it.

 

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The End.

Their Lives Aquatic

Last week I received an email from a friend that said, “Can you tell us about the crew? What goes on behind the scenes?”

It feels like I baked a cake and realized I forgot the eggs. The crew! My 350 neighbors from 40 different countries whose stories have gone untold here for the last year and a half because, well, I’m not sure. Daily life onboard is consumed with patients and stories and navigating (literally) our wacky lives in Africa. I forgot you might like to be introduced to all the people who make Mercy Ships possible. I don’t blame you, they are pretty groovy.

They will tell you I’ve neglected them due to my Uniform Envy, because they get to wear scrubs (read: pajamas) every day and I don’t. This is probably true. Sometimes I try to watch an early surgery so I have an excuse to wear scrubs. On those days, people say:

“Catherine – You observed in the theater today, eh?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Ya, Dr. Gary’s maxillo-facial mandibularectomy and then Dr. Frank’s bilateral osteotomies.” (It’s important to be wordy with official medical terms in a loud voice for credibility.)
Canadian in Scrubs: “Ya, you mean the tumor and the bowed legs?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Those are their street names, but yes.”
Canadian in Scrubs: “Right. Ok.” His pager goes off. He looks down, frowns. “Sorry, gotta run.”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Oh, ya, ya. Me too. I have a thing I should really – ”

He’s gone.

The other thing about us that I’ve never told you is that we carry pagers. Yep. This is a big boat, people are hard to find. Based on our dial-up-speed-internet and our clunky hospital pagers, it is 1996 on the Africa Mercy.

Anyways, after that email I pulled together this little feature. Somewhere along the way it turned into a superlative thing. But thank you to the kind people mentioned below who have no idea that they are on this blog today. I hope your moms like what I wrote about you.

Most Likely to Have Tom Hanks Play Him in a Movie: Captain Tim Tretheway

20131110-231737.jpgYes we are a hospital, but we are also a ship. Captain Tim is a guy that you look at and think, “This guy. This guy has some pretty awesome stories.” He’s been sailing hospitals to developing nations for more than 20 years. If you think you have a cool job, multiply that times 100 and that’s how cool Captain Tim’s job is. He also has an excellent overhead announcement voice and is an advocate of closed-toed-shoes.

Most Likely to Teach A Patient How to Make a Paper Airplane: Dr. Frank Haydon, Orthopedic Surgeon

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On a recent Friday morning I walked into E Ward and found a surgeon sitting on the floor surrounded by a circle of his patients making paper snowflakes. That’s Dr. Frank, who spends as much time visiting patients in the wards as he does in the theater operating on them.

Most Likely to Instagram a Photo of Her Baby: Ali, Nurse

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Ali met her husband Phil in Liberia in some hilarious scenario involving a flat tire and U.N. soldiers who only spoke Urdu. I forget the specifics. But if you’ve seen the 60 Minutes about Mercy Ships, you might remember when Ali gushed to Scott Pelley that this is “the love boat.” Well, homegirl speaks from experience. Ali and Phil got married and had Zoe, the person I really came here to tell you about –

Most Likely To Be Famous: Zoe

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Zoe’s other superlative title could be ‘Most Humanitarian 1-Year-Old.’ She gets to grow up in Africa while her mom and dad work in the hospital and engineering departments respectively. There is a waitlist to babysit Zoe. Ok that last part wasn’t true but I could totally see it happening.

Most Likely to Thank You for Thanking Him: Dr. Gary Parker, Maxillofacial Surgeon

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No crew feature would be complete without featuring Dr. Gary, who has been onboard for 26 years with his wife, Susan, and their two (awesome) kids. He is the longest serving surgeon and frequently wins impressive humanitarian awards that he will never tell you about. I could write an entire book about how amazingly gifted and humble he is, but humble people don’t really jibe with you when you start showering them with praise and rounds of applause in public arenas. Dr. G also gets the thrill of reviewing my stories that need medical fact checking. Surgeon by day, Editor by night. There’s nothing this man can’t do. That’s our Dr. Gary.

This won’t be the last of the crew features! These people are a pretty interesting bunch.

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What else have I missed that you want to read about? Drop me a line: catherineclarkemurphy(at)gmail(dot)com

Today’s photos courtesy Mercy Ships.

Casting Call

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.

 

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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.

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Hello, handsome.

The Fairest of Them All

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

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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