“We weren’t sure if she’d come back alive…”
“Nobody ever imagined she’d come back like this!”
“I don’t even know what words to pick – she wasn’t like this before!”
… That’s what Marthe’s friends and family had to say when they welcomed her back home. She was returning from a long stay on the Africa Mercy, over four hours away, where surgeons removed a nearly 30-pound tumour from her back. A massive burden had literally been lifted, and the transformation was palpable; gone was the stone-faced Martha who first walked up the gangway.
But, in the beginning, her skepticism was understandable. For 18 years Marthe had carried this heavy load. A failed operation years ago didn’t keep the mass from growing. She’d learned to deal with it, to accept life as it was – including the physical and emotional pain – while hiding the disfigurement from others. Though she’d learned to survive, she’d become hard … like stone.
Despite doubts, Marthe made her way to Mercy Ships, where surgeons were eager to help. When it was time to remove the material covering the large mass, the difficulty of having such a condition became even more apparent. Her sister and another nurse helped remove layers of fabric, cloth and plastic, which had been intentionally tucked, wrapped and tied around it. It constantly leaked fluid; without the makeshift solution, Marthe’s clothes would be soaked.
Then, good news came – Marthe was approved for surgery. Surgeons said they’d be able to remove the tumor and transfer skin grafts to the large vacant area where the tumor had been. To those who met her early on, there was little doubt she could handle it. “I knew she was already a survivor because she’d lived with the tumor for so long,” says nurse Katelyn Martinetti.
Once on the ship, nurse Nicole Lukens cared for Marthe by giving her a pre-op wash. “I spent about 30 minutes helping her, tucking incontinence pads around her tumor and helping her tie a sheet around everything to keep it all in place. As we worked, I was given a glimpse of the day-to-day struggle this beautiful woman dealt with – and my heart just broke.”
Soon after, Marthe went in for surgery … and came out tumor-free! It was hard to believe the heaviness once attached to her back was now gone. But there she was, lying on her back – something she hadn’t done in years. “When she was first admitted, she was very withdrawn and didn’t smile or talk to anyone very much. But, just a few days after surgery, she started smiling and waving as she lay in bed,” recalls nurse Anne McClary.
Still, the days and weeks that followed were intense. Marthe’s wounds needed constant care and ample time to heal. It took three to four hours to change her bandages each day – not only a painstaking process, but a painful one for Marthe. Sometimes she yelled at the nurses. But they patiently and diligently stuck by her side to help her get through the hardest moments. They spent so much time together that, as the days passed, relationships formed. Marthe started trusting the team taking care of her. Nurse Mirjam Nerz noticed. “Slowly you could see a change in Marthe. She was smiling more. She only called us ‘yovos’ (slang term for white person) when it was painful. Marthe finally started asking for us by name and genuinely smiling when we’d come to pick her up for treatment,” Mirjam recalls fondly.
Therapists working with Marthe saw a similar transformation. Day in and day out, they used stretching and strengthening techniques to make sure Marthe maintained movement and good range of motion in her arms and neck, an essential part of her post-surgical care. As treatment sessions began to wind down, physical therapist Michelle Erwin was excited about her patient’s progress – both physically and emotionally. “Lifting her arms high into the air is easy now! But it was like pulling teeth to get her to do this in the beginning,” she laughs, remembering Marthe’s resistance from earlier sessions.
Finally, the days of physical therapy appointments and bandage changes came to an end. It was time for Marthe to leave Mercy Ships and return home. There were a lot of sad goodbyes from the many people she’d become close to. But the idea of getting home to her family kept Marthe’s attention. Off she went on the four-hour journey.
As her home grew closer, she looked expectantly out of the window – and, as the vehicle turned onto her street, it was a mob scene. She could barely climb out as people surrounded her with cheers, tears, and hugs of joy and relief. Family member after family member loudly greeted her, clapping hands and beaming with Marthe-like smiles … yes, they all shared the same smile!
As for Marthe, she was most focused on three very special people … her own sweet children.
Story by Windsor Marchesi
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Justine Forrest & Timmy Baskerville