With just three weeks to go with my life in West Africa, time and opportunity are quickly fading away.
Orthopedic operations are now finished. as we move into the VVF (female fistulae) specialty. This is combined with Max Fax, General and eye surgeries. I am frantically putting finishing touches on the department manual that I have written as a ‘how –to’ book for someone who literally ‘drops’ into the department. Fortunately, that is not our reality at the moment, as we have George, Frank and Juan to keep the department’s gears in motion…along with two very responsible Day Workers, Mark and Amara.
Interviews took place for my position, and George, Frank and Juan all expressed interest in the job. The interview team had a tough decision to make, but in the end, George was chosen to be the OR Sterilizing Team Leader. Alice (from Sierra Leone) who currently works in the Galley will take my bed space, when I leave-and so the department will be left in good shape with a very dependable team.
As always, the best way to connect to the work we do here is to share a patient story. This one is about Memouna.
Go down two flights of stairs on the Africa Mercy, and you’ll find you’ve stepped out of a ship and into a busy buzzing hospital. On the wards you’ll find kids playing, doctors bustling, patients visiting, and plenty of African music. Listen . . . you’ll hear conversations in English echoed by translators in French or one of Guinea’s three local languages – the chatter forms a background like white noise. One would expect that a 13-year-old girl would be among the chattiest – but not Memouna.
Memouna’s pronounced facial tumor began above her left eyebrow, spilling down her face to the corner of her mouth and displacing her left eye. This tumor, a neurofibroma she has had since birth, left her looking like one side of her face was sliding off – like Dali’s famous melting clock in a desert. From behind the curtain of her deformity, Memouna saw the world with her good right eye. And . . . to her despair . . . the world saw Memouna.
For 13 years she was taunted for her appearance. Moreover, superstitions run deep in West African culture, and physical deformities are believed to be the sinister mark of someone cursed. Memouna was not only teased by peers – she was completely dismissed. The drooping facial tumor became the source of a broken spirit. “She was not happy because in Africa people stay away from her. She would cry because she did not understand why no one liked her,” said Memouna’s 17-year-old sister, Aminata, the oldest of her nine siblings.
“I had so many sleepless nights worrying how to help my child,” said Memouna’s father, who was trying to sell his car to afford her surgery when he learned the Africa Mercy was coming to Conakry. “I was told that no one would be able to do the surgery except Mercy Ships. I had no money to pay with . . . and then God paid!”
On Wednesday, 26 September 2012, Mercy Ships surgeons removed Memouna’s tumor. After her operation, even under layers of bandages, the transformation was profound. Memouna’s profile no longer appeared rough and misshapen. Her face had been physically lifted from the weight of the tumor. Nurses hoped her spirits would follow, but removing years of social isolation is a much more complicated procedure.
In the days after her operation, quiet Memouna said nothing, while her father and sister took turns staying at the hospital and speaking on her behalf. “I’m sorry, maybe she will talk more another day,” her sister would say to visitors. Mercy Ships ward nurse Lynne White said, “It was a long time before I realized she spoke. She was so silent that I didn’t think she could. But I can understand it. She went from spending her life keeping to herself with no friends, and then she came here and was overwhelmed by the attention.”
One night a week after the surgery, Lynne came into the ward to find Memouna listening to headphones, nodding her head to music and mouthing the words. “I couldn’t believe it, so I did whatever I could to try to get a laugh out of her – I started dancing!” Lynne said. “Memouna just laughed and laughed. It was wonderful!”
Two weeks later Memouna arrived on the dock with her father for a check-up. She kept to herself, waiting on the benches. “Is that my Memouna?” Lynne exclaimed. Hearing her name, Memouna glanced around to find Lynne, not walking, but dancing over to her. “It’s you, you’re here!” Lynne cheered, waving her arms in the air. Memouna clapped her hands and covered her mouth, trying and failing to hold back her giggles.
Even though Memouna does not give up her laughter easily, she lets those who show her love see the real Memouna. In those moments, there is a cute teenager in a pink sweatshirt and orange nail polish . . . where a timid, downcast child used to be.
The removal of Memouna’s tumor marks the beginning of physical . . . and spiritual . . . healing.
Until next time,