The tiny baby was born with a cleft lip and palate that made it impossible for him to nurse properly. It was a mother’s worst nightmare – watching helplessly as her baby grew thinner and weaker.
“I didn’t understand why it was happening or what I could do to help him. I couldn’t breastfeed him properly. No matter what we did, he kept losing weight,” said his mother, Francoise, her eyes reflecting her weariness and fear. “We were so scared … we thought he would die.”
Despite the precariousness of his situation, this mother’s love knew no bounds. The hungry baby cried all night, so Francoise stayed up, rocking her tiny baby through the long nights with only the company of a kerosene lamp.
Baby Paul, like his mama, was a fighter. The Africa Mercy’s medical staff immediately recognized that his condition was critical. They brought him onboard before the hospital was even officially opened, so that they could monitor his temperature and feed him through a nose-to-stomach tube.
“The problem when they’re that small and weak is that they find it really difficult to suck. We fed him with a syringe and eventually got him to a special bottle made for babies with cleft lip and palate,” said Lee-Anne Borrow James (AUS), Infant Feeding Program dietician.
It was touch-and-go for a few days, but then the courageous little boy began to turn the corner toward healing. Once he was considered safe to leave the hospital, the dieticians checked Paul regularly to track his growth, measure the size of his head, arms and legs, assess his feeding, and continue suggesting methods for healthy weight gain.
Gradually, as the weeks passed, baby Paul began to visibly change. His formerly gaunt face was replaced by round cheeks. His hair grew thick and healthy. His formerly listless eyes were now glowing and content.
Paul wasn’t the only one being transformed. Hope bloomed in Francoise’s heart as she watched her baby slowly growing stronger. She dared to hope that this baby that people had once called “monster” would survive … this baby that was now adored by crew members and other patients. She said, “When I look at my baby, I can only cry – but it is tears of joy. Even I am gaining weight, now that I can eat and sleep!”
“The dynamic between dietician, mother and infant is a special one to be a part of,” says Lee-Anne. Many mothers struggle with believing that their baby’s condition is not their fault, but is instead something that occurred naturally and can be fixed. It took time for Francoise to trust the affirming words of the Mercy Ships dietician team. “It’s been amazing to watch over time how she’s worked very hard for her baby. She’s quite determined. She fiercely knows what she wants and what she needs to do,” said Lee-Anne.
Three months later, weighing a whopping 6.4 kilograms (14.1 pounds), Paul was three times the baby he was when he first arrived. He was once again carried up the gangway – this time, for a cleft lip repair that would restore his future and reward his mother’s courageous hope.
Story by Rose Talbot
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Saul Loubassa Bighonda and Shawn Thompson
The six- and eight-year-old sisters didn’t get the important nutrients they needed during crucial years of bone development. Without strong bones, the pressure of walking caused their legs to grow incorrectly, resulting in a condition called Valgus. Because of their malformed legs, they both found it difficult to walk to school, and only sometimes managed to attend. Their malnutrition, combined with an inability to access surgery, meant Salamatou and Mariama had to learn to cope with their twisted legs.
Their parents felt guilty when they first knew something was not right. “I felt bad that we did not have any money to take them to the hospital,” recalled their mother, Mymoona. “I was worried about them and their future. If I didn’t do anything, I knew they would have a hard time in life.”
Mymoona was so worried about her daughters that it began to take a toll on her health. So when her husband, Debo, heard about Mercy Ships, he led all three of his girls down the mountain on horseback, making the brave journey to the coast. They were grateful to have each other as they arrived at a ship they had only heard stories about.
“We didn’t know the hospital was actually in the ship. We’ve never been to a ship before,” said Debo. “When I first came I was afraid for my girls, but then I saw many children like them and the fear went away.”
The sisters’ almost identical conditions enabled the whole family to stay together after they were approved for surgery. With their family by their side, Salamatou and Mariama began to soak in their new surroundings and prepare for the operations that would change the course of their lives.
The first day after their surgeries, Salamatou was up and walking around, challenging her sister, who was convinced the straightened casts didn’t contain her own legs. Clutching at the familiarity of her toes, Mariama watched her older sister stand tall. Soon, their strong personalities were evident as they each watched competitively to see what the other was achieving.
Their sibling rivalry throughout recovery encouraged growth as they competed with one another to reach each healing milestone. Who would stand up first? Who could walk the furthest? “They were encouraging each other during their time on the ship,” recalls Debo. “One day, Salamatou said to her younger sister, ‘Because you never smile, I will walk before you…’ And she did! This motivated Mariama in her healing.”
During their rehabilitation exercises, their parents learned about the importance of nutrition. The ship’s dietician gave them valuable information about crucial nutrients, like calcium, before sending the family on their way with plenty of vitamins to aid the girls’ healing.
“They told us about the importance of eggs, fish, and vegetables,” said Mymoona. “We will be sure to tell the other families in the village so it can help us all.”
Volunteer Physiotherapist Meg Crameri worked with the girls during their rehab sessions. She hopes this nutritional advice will be shared to help other families whose children might otherwise end up suffering with similar conditions.
“If you are from a poorer area where nutrition isn’t a top priority, then it’s not surprising that this occurs,” said Crameri. “One of the big ways we can change that is by making sure they do it right when they go back home.”
Salamatou and Mariama returned to Bororos with newly straightened legs! And Debo and Mymoona returned ready to share what they had learned about nutrition during their time on the Africa Mercy.
“The route down the mountain was too much for the girls before, and I thought they would never go down. Their lives are far better now, far improved,” said Debo. “Now, they will be able to commit to school and use their education. Before, my heart was anxious for my family, but now I am content.”
Written by: Georgia Ainsworth
Photos by: Shawn Thompson and Saul Loubassa Bighonda
Edited by: Karis Johnson
It took a few minutes — and his mother’s whispered encouragement — before the four-year-old dared to slowly blink his eyes open. Immediately, his eyes spread wide. Wonder replaced fear as he reached for the toy car in front of him — something he hadn’t been able to see clearly just a day before.
“One, two, three, four, five,” Tresor grinned as he loudly counted his mother’s fingers. His mother, Larissa, held him close against her chest, letting out an audible sigh of relief.
“Before the surgery, I was really scared because I wondered how his eyes would look — will they be normal? What will happen? Will he see again?” Larissa said. “But afterwards, he could see colors and toys and I knew everything would be okay.”
Larissa first noticed that Tresor was having problems with his vision only a few months earlier. Her bright, rambunctious four-year-old began having difficulty reading and writing, and he tripped and fell more often when he was walking.
“He’s a feisty, pull no punches, get-out-of-my-face little boy — at least in part because that’s how he survived,” said Dr. Glenn Strauss, the volunteer ophthalmic surgeon who operated on Tresor. “He had cataracts and very limited vision…Tresor was aggressive because that’s how he managed his environment. In the familiar, he did quite well. But what would happen at school when he couldn’t read or see the blackboard?”
For now, he could still clamber the cracked, rocky pathway to his house. He could still attend school and play with his best friend, Sammy. But it wouldn’t be long before his cataracts worsened and robbed him of these and any other opportunities ahead.
Watching her only child slowly lose his vision at such a young age was an agonizing experience for Larissa. She makes a living cooking and selling food at a local market — a job which requires long days on her feet. She always dreamed of more for her son, but his cataracts threatened to take these dreams away.
“When I heard the news, I was so depressed,” Larissa said sadly. “I felt like a part of me was dying because I know sight is one of the most important things in life. I couldn’t believe this would happen to my child.”
Unable to afford surgery to remove his cataracts, Larissa felt paralyzed.
“I couldn’t think, I wasn’t eating. Every mummy wants to see her child be successful,” she said. “I wondered, will he become a burden? Will he always need to be assisted? It wasn’t easy for me to think of him that way.”
After hearing about Mercy Ships from Tresor’s school teacher, Larissa brought her son to screening, and before long he was boarding the Africa Mercy for a pediatric eye surgery. Despite any initial fears, the quick, 20-minute procedure was a huge success, which was in part due to Tresor’s age and the early stage at which he was able to receive help.
“Cataracts stop the development of pathways to the brain. The effect in kids aged 3-5 means it may take weeks for pathways to light up again after cataracts are removed. In cases where it’s been years, those kids might get improvement in quality but not in quantity. There will be continued improvement as he uses his ‘new eyes’ over the next few weeks,” said Dr. Strauss.
This reality highlights the monumental importance of pediatric eye surgeries. Countless cases of blindness could be remedied, eyesight restored, and futures changed if only more people had access to the kind of medical help they need.
Because of the medical intervention he received at Mercy Ships, Tresor was able to jump back to regular life quickly. In just a matter of weeks, he was back in school writing, reading, and playing without anything holding him back.
“He can write perfectly now. It’s my joy because I want him to be successful and to be able to do better than I did. I want a better life for my child than I had,” Larissa said. “Now, I’m full of joy and comfort, and grateful that Mercy Ships came and gave healing to my child. I’m so happy.”
Written by Rose Talbot
Photography by Saul Loubassa-Bighonda
Edited by Karis Johnson
But Tresor’s childhood took an unexpected turn when he was just three years old — he was playing outside with his friends when he was accidentally pushed into an open fire.
“There was nobody in the kitchen watching over him. He wasn’t crying out loud, so no one knew what happened. The fire kept burning him. A long time later, my sister discovered him, lying like that,” recounted Tresor’s mother, Mary Magdalene.
The flames burned much of Tresor’s small body, leaving him with wounds along his upper body and face that would eventually fade into rigid scars. The burns on his arm were the injuries that truly left their mark on his young life. Without proper medical care, his wounds healed incorrectly, causing a contracture that locked his elbow into place, costing him the use of his arm and hand.
For Mary Magdalene, Tresor’s accident left deep scars on her heart as well. Because she was not there when he fell into the fire, she vividly remembers the moment she first saw her little boy in this condition.
“I returned home the next morning and found him like this. No one had taken him to the hospital,” she said somberly, recalling how he had been covered in open burns, bones showing on his arm. Trips to the hospital for dressing changes left her in deep debt.
“I cried and felt so bad, saying to God, ‘I’m not sure he’ll survive, I’m not sure he’ll make it,’” she said, feeling utterly devastated that she hadn’t been around to protect him.
As time went by, the limitations caused by Tresor’s accident became increasingly apparent. Without the use of his hand, and his arm locked in its contracture, he needed help with mundane tasks, like putting his clothes on in the morning eating by himself.
Seven years after his accident, Mary Magdalene heard about the Africa Mercy’s arrival in Cameroon and brought Tresor to receive surgery. It was the answer to a prayer they had both echoed for years: that Tresor to one day regain the use of his arm.
He received surgery on board, which removed the dense scar tissue surrounding his elbow, replacing it with skin grafts that allowed him to stretch out his arm. The surgical team also operated on his hand to give him optimum mobility in his fingers.
The road to recovery stretched ahead for Tresor. Before physiotherapy could begin, he had to patiently wait for his wounds to heal. But it didn’t take long for Tresor’s characteristic energy and cheer to return, and it was a common sight to see him tearing around the wards or wildly careening around Deck 7 on his tricycle.
Tresor’s rehab included working to grip objects, pick things up, and carry increasingly heavier loads using his hand.
“His mobility now is basically at 100 percent. He got so excited the very first time he was able to move his elbow by himself,” said Chelsea Darlow, the occupational therapist who worked closely with Tresor during his weeks of physiotherapy. “He’s so motivated – I didn’t even have to tell him to do his exercises; he did it himself. If I say to do 10 repetitions, he’ll do 20.”
When asked how life will change for Tresor after surgery, his mother said he’ll have more independence over his life. He’ll now be able to bathe himself, wash his dishes, eat properly, and write like everyone else.
But in typical 10-year-old fashion, Tresor is excited for other kinds of life changes like playing basketball, keeping up with his friends, and taking on more responsibility as the ‘man of the house.’
His ultimate dream is to become a mechanic when he grows up.
“Since the first time he saw mechanics at work, he told me, ‘This is what I want to do,'” said Mary Magdalene. “He would say, ‘Mummy, I pray we’ll have the money to have my arm straightened.’”
Now, with his arm healed and his mobility restored, Tresor is free to pursue his dreams with open arms.
Written by: Rose Talbot
Photography by: Saul Loubassa Bighonda
Edited by: Karis Johnson
Yaya, now 27 years old, initially noticed something starting to grow on her jaw. The once-small tumor continued to grow aggressively until Yaya had difficulty eating or speaking. Eventually, the tumor would have threatened her ability to breathe, causing an early death.
Unwilling to submit to a future where she wouldn’t see her daughter grow up, Yaya fought against the odds. But in a region of the world where health care is scarce and often financially out of reach, hope felt far away.
Yaya’s attempts to receive surgery were unsuccessful. She tried not to let unkind comments from strangers discourage and shame her, but the pressure to hide herself away was strong. She spent much of her time inside, and when she was forced to go out in public she wore fabric draped across her face in an attempt to mask her tumor.
For eight years, Yaya fought — for herself, for her husband, and most of all, for Moonira. Finally, her miracle arrived in the form of a floating hospital! After Yaya came onboard the Africa Mercy, her kind spirit was immediately evident. Despite facing hardships and rejection, she refused to become bitter. Instead, she was quick to offer help translating for other patients and reassuring people around her that they could relax and trust the volunteer nurses and surgeons.
After her tumor was removed and she began recovering, Yaya’s energy was contagious! She was so excited to return to home her family and show them her transformation that she could hardly sit still!
“I feel beautiful and happy!” she exclaimed with infectious confidence. When her husband saw her for the first time after surgery, his joy was also evident as he said, “You became so beautiful!”
Without the burden of the tumor, her life became simpler in tangible ways — she felt free once more. “Since the surgery, I feel released. Everything is easier to do,” Yaya said. “I feel free to move and go anywhere. I don’t get a reaction anymore from people who see me.”
Yaya remained joyful during her months of recovery, but one constant thought was still present in her mind: reuniting with her daughter. She called her on the phone regularly. One day, Moonira called her, saying that a neighbor had shown her before and after pictures of another woman with a similar tumor who had been treated by Mercy Ships.
“Mummy, is this what you’ll look like?” Moonira had asked in disbelief. Yaya laughed, knowing that no photograph would do her transformation justice. She held on through the years for her daughter’s sake, and now, they can rejoice together at the change that took place and the future that awaits them.
Written by: Rose Talbot
Photography by: Shawn Thompson
Edited by: Karis Johnson