Nothing and Everything

The other day, I came across some incredible numbers:

In 2014, Mercy Ships performed 2,527 surgeries in Congo.
Restored vision to 995 people.

Repaired 170 cleft lips.
Treated 8,358 dental patients.
Trained 73 Congolese healthcare professionals, including 6 surgeons.
Provided employment for 200+ translators.
Provided free rehabilitation care to 70 pediatric orthopedic patients.
Operated on 60 obstetric fistulas.

They also employed 1 familiar Houstonian and sent her back to Africa.

Ten months ago I was a girl who wrote to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Today I am a girl writing to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

The Africa Mercy was docked in Pointe Noire, Congo until June 2014. Originally, Mercy Ships’ country-next was Guinea – but due to the Ebola outbreak, Conakry was no longer an option. If any of you were reading this blog while we were there in 2012/2013, you might remember the brokenness of Guinea’s healthcare infrastructure. Long before a deadly virus showed up, hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed. And now? I can’t imagine. It may not make headlines anymore, but the impact of Ebola is still heavy in West Africa.

Next, plans were then made to sail to Cotonou, Benin, but again, the uncertainty around Ebola forced us to re-route in the Fall.

So, to make a long story short, tonight I am writing to you from Tamatave, Madagascar, where the ship has been since October. I am now working for Mercy Ships on their digital media team. I’m based in Houston, but happily traveling this month visiting the ship.

Being back on board is wonderful. It’s been a bit like coming home. Except that my house isn’t in the country where I left it, and, unlike last time I was here, now everyone speaks Malagasy. And drinks out of coconuts. And zips around on rickshas. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Somehow, through all of the ups and downs, uncertainty, fear, and fuzzy future – the remarkable crew here seems stronger. While pieces of our hearts are still in West Africa, volunteers onboard the Africa Mercy are already making an incredible impact in Tamatave.

If the stats from Congo are any indication, in Madagascar we have much to be excited for.

Photo Feb 12, 13 01 11

Here’s to many more stories in 2015!

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The Patient Who Didn’t Need Me

My job around here is to write stories, to give people a sense of the difference free healthcare makes in the developing world. I do this with the hope that somewhere, someone, maybe you, will read about the work Mercy Ships is doing and want to support us. We couldn’t do what we do without our incredible donors. Your generosity amazes me every time I walk down the hospital corridor.

During our time in Guinea, I wrote a lot about a man named Thierno. Thierno was a rising Guinean soccer star until a benign tumor began to grow in his jaw. In the U.S., Thierno’s tumor would have been removed in a dentist’s chair under local anesthesia before it was even visible. On his way out of his dentist’s office, a nice lady at the desk would have smiled and said ‘we’re all good here, I filed with your insurance provider. Have a nice day!‘ Then Thierno would have said goodbye and driven himself to soccer practice. The only inconvenience might have been that his lower lip was numb and puffy.

In West Africa that doesn’t happen. So Thierno’s tumor grew for five years and he had to abandon his soccer career. It grew so large that it inconveniently almost killed him. Almost.

As I was working on Thierno’s story, I struggled with the pressure of giving a voice to a man whose suffering I would never understand. So I asked Thierno what he would say if he was the one writing the story. A week later he met me on the dock with his hand-written first draft. Over the next few weeks we worked together with a translator, and Thierno wrote the beautiful piece I’m about to share with you. You may need tissues.

Thierno taught me lots of things about life, but the lesson from today’s post is this: sometimes we don’t have to give a voice to the voiceless. We just have to give them a pen.

Credit Photo: Catherine Murphy;

        My name is Thierno, I am Guinean.  There is a story I would like to tell you of – it is a story of a man, a football player. This man was young and strong and fit. He played for his hometown’s soccer team as a defender. Then he was struck with tragedy and had no means for healing. Each word that I write today is proof of a happy ending, but I will never forget the five years of the unhappy beginning. This man was me.

Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - Guinea

The tumor began small on my face. As it grew, I began to feel more and more pain. Within a few months, my health began to decline to the point that I could no longer play football. My mother stopped everything to care for me, she took me to many doctors who were traditional healers and we tried to find a treatment – but nothing worked. My mother became exhausted from worry for her only son. With each month, the tumor grew larger. The creases on her face grew deeper. From behind my deformity, I watched her lose all hope. Then Mercy Ships said they could help.

The atmosphere onboard the Africa Mercy was friendly and loving – the doctors and nurses took such good care of me. Each day, I was happy and comforted in my hospital bed.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo facial patient GNC17172_DIALLO_Thierno

I cannot say anything – I do not have the words. I am speechless because I am grateful to God for the doctors that were so competent and able to remove something so dangerous. Because God brought them together, this operation was possible. I will never forget Mercy Ships, and I know that today I find myself in good health by the grace of God.

I am so pleased that the government negotiated the arrival of the ship; I am not the only Guinean who has been blessed by it. There have been many Guineans who were sick and have found their health because of Mercy Ships.

For my part, I don’t know what to say, any word, to Mercy Ships. The humanitarian support that the ship carries for us is unimaginable and inexplicable. I wish I could thank all the staff of the ship, every single person, especially Dr. Gary, who put all of his effort into my surgery. May God protect Mercy Ships, bless Guinea, and all Guineans.

Photo: Debra Bell

Thierno and his aunt.

Photos in today’s post courtesy of Mercy Ships. Taken by Deb Bell.

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