He does not know why his mother left him.
René was just five years old when suddenly he had a “new family” and so many chores he was never able to attend school. He worked for his keep from that day forward.
René remembers the moment a friend mentioned that his right eye looked bigger than his left. He felt no pain, and his sight was unaffected, so René ignored it.
When René was 18, he began to notice pressure behind his eye when he exerted himself. He told the family. “But they didn’t care,” he explained softly. He had no money pay a doctor and no one to help him.
One day followed another until five years passed, and the eye pressure made working in the fields impossible. “I had no idea what it was,” said René. “I was worried something was growing. I felt like something was pushing, that my eye would pop out. When I rested, the pressure would stop. But, when I started again, the pressure would return.”
René returned to kitchen work, but his eye became more distorted.
Life turned around the day René’s friend told him about a television program about Mercy Ships. “This organization is doing free surgery. They can help you. There is a free screening,” his friend said. So together they went, and René was finally offered the help that had been so far out of his reach.
René had a very complex surgery. The slow-growing tumor filled his sinuses, pushing down his throat and into his cranium. This hungry yet benign growth had relentlessly pushed his eye forward. And, without medical help, it would have continued to expand.
The six-hour operation was performed by Dr Gary Parker, Mercy Ships Chief Medical Officer and Dr Mark Shrime. Dr Parker explained: “This kind of tumor usually starts in the nose and is corrected with a small operation. But because René didn’t have access to safe, effective and affordable surgery, it grew into something very complicated.”
Recovery from the intricate procedure was swift and complete. René can see clearly, breathe easily, and his headaches are gone. “The surgery went really well,” he announced. “The tumor won’t grow back anymore! I am really, really, really happy that the disease that was bothering my life is gone forever, and I am able to work. ”
René has plans for the future. “I’m going back to say ‘thank you,’ then go and find work. I’m going to try farming beans, corn and rice for myself.”
Five-month-old Paulinah, the sixth child in her family, was born with a large tumour (teratoma) on her behind.
Paulinah’s mother Florentine had a very difficult delivery with her. The baby’s head came out quickly but then she became stuck. The midwife was able to help her deliver the baby and when she emerged they saw the big mass coming from the baby’s rectum. Rather than look upon the baby with horror the midwife told Florentine that her child was a gift from God and she emphasized it so much that the baby’s surname NOMENJANAHARY, is translated from Malagasy to mean gift from God.
Florentine had heard about Mercy Ships from her sister who lives in Taomasina. The timing was perfect as Pediatric Surgeon Dr. Sherif Emil from Montreal happened to be volunteering onboard the Africa Mercy.
Paulinah and her mother had to take a canoe ride across a river, a one hour hike through the mountains and a 4.5 hour ride in the car to bring her baby to the Africa Mercy.
Despite the number of obstacles that stood in the way of the baby’s survival, Dr. Emil was impressed by how Paulinah had chosen to live. In addition, Dr. Sherif was amazed by the care she received.
“This is a difficult patient to take care of (because) you have huge incisions that need to heal. (You have) to keep the area clean and to keep the wound from getting infected takes a lot of work. This baby recovered without infection. It was a testament to the incredible amount of care and compassion the nurses showed this patient and every patient.”
When Paulinah and her mother arrived home to their village there was a celebration with refreshments and speeches made. Everyone passed Paulinah around, kissed her, looked at her bottom in marvel and wonder and then kissed her again before handing her off to the next person.
Her whole village will certainly remind her when she’s old enough to hear it of the courageous journey that her mom went on to get to the Africa Mercy.
“When you save a child you don’t just save a life but you save a lifetime.” – Dr. Sherif Emil
Juliette’s journey to healing began before the Africa Mercy ever arrived in Madagascar. Many would say it was divine providence that connected her with Mercy Ships nurses Mirjam Plomp and Jasmin Biddell. They were on an advance team scouting Juliette’s town, Monrandava, as a potential patient screening location. It’s located nearby the famous avenue of Baobab trees.
The nurses were relaxing one evening in the town, sharing with locals about the free surgeries and healthcare services Mercy Ships would soon be offering in the nation. One Malagasy man asked if they would examine an older lady he knew with a large facial growth.
The 52-year-old grandmother was waiting on the team’s doorstep at 5.30 the next morning. The nurses examined the tumor growing in Juliette’s mouth and gave her the very first appointment card for the 2013-2014 Madagascar Field Service. She would be evaluated by a surgeon when the Mercy Ship arrived.
One huge financial obstacle to Juliette’s healing had been removed – the surgery she needed would be free. However, another insurmountable problem remained. Juliette lived more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the port city of Toamasina, where the Mercy Ship anchored. The cost of transportation to get there was unobtainable.
So, she never made the journey. Mirjam explained how they tried to call and find Juliette. They looked for her over the following months as patients arrived, “But she never showed,” Mirjam said.
Meanwhile, the tumor inside Juliette’s mouth continued to grow. “It took up space in my mouth. It grew and grew. It just got bigger and bigger. It was really frightening,” she remembered.
When the second consecutive Madagascar field service was announced, Juliette’s hopes were rekindled after losing her first chance for healing. “I was worried, but then really happy when I heard Mercy Ships was coming back for another screening,” she said.
Mirjam described seeing Juliette upon the return of the Mercy Ships team to Monrandava. “She showed up on the first screening day. She said she didn’t have money to come for her (previous) appointment.”
For this second field service, an initiative by Malagasy companies helped sponsor patient transportation from far-flung towns to the hospital ship. This complimentary bus ticket was the reason Juliette was finally able to travel to the Mercy Ship to receive the free surgery that removed the invasive, benign tumor from her mouth.
Juliette is very thankful for her second chance for healing. “I am really satisfied,” she said. “They took care of me day and night. Someone was always there to give me medicine or what I needed. I am happy the tumor is not there anymore. It is gone!”
Written by Sharon Walls
Obstetric fistula is a devastating pregnancy-related disability that primarily affects young women from poor backgrounds. Fistula is usually the result of obstructed labour which means the baby does not exit the pelvis during childbirth due to being physically blocked. However, fistula is a preventable and mostly treatable condition.
Obstructed labour combined with a lack of skilled medical care and unaffordable caesarean sections, obstetric fistula most often leads to permanent incontinence – a continuous leakage of urine and loss of control over bowel movements.
A vaginal fistula, which usually affects pregnant women, results from prolonged labour, usually lasting two to five days, with delivery happening only after the baby dies.
During labour, the baby’s head and the woman’s pubic bone form a vice, cutting off blood flow to the tissue trapped in this area. Following delivery, the dead tissue sloughs away, leaving an abnormal opening between the birth canal and the bladder (less frequently the rectum).
Unable to control the flow of urine (and/or faeces), the woman is perpetually wet and soiled. Affected women are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracised by their families and communities.
– The Dress Ceremony restores dignity beyond surgery. Women afflicted by obstetric fistula are often outcasts from their own homes, their relationships lost, their clothes soiled. We send them back with a celebration and a new dress, symbolizing their newfound wholeness and a brighter outlook to the future.
In addition to performing free fistula repair operations for affected women, Mercy Ships provides Training & Prevention To help build the capacity of healthcare systems in developing nations to address the condition of fistula. Mercy Ships networks with and provides training for local & international healthcare professionals including surgeons, nurses and traditional birth attendants.
Noely is a strong, proud Malagasy farmer. He owns a plot of land and raises coffee, pineapple and bananas to provide for his wife and only child.
Agriculture is largely performed by hand in this island nation, and at 40 years of age Noely has devoted a lifetime of back-breaking work to barely make ends meet.
One morning when Noely was washing, he called to his wife, “There is something swelling on my neck!” The growth, that began like a small stone lodged at the base of his throat, gradually grew. As it caused no pain, Noely did his best to ignore it. And still it grew.
Someone in the village told him the growth looked like a goiter, but going to see a doctor never crossed Noely’s mind. “I am responsible for my siblings as well as my family,” he said. “I’ve never been to a doctor. I would never think of spending money to fix it.”
And still the lump below his throat grew.
This dignified man now required his daughter to tie his shoelaces because he could no longer bend his neck to see his feet. And the goiter was slowly distorting his ability to speak.
A decade after his disturbing discovery in the mirror, Noely’s brother called him with amazing news. A Mercy Ship was returning to Madagascar, and they were treating goiters – for free! “I’m going to do everything I can to get there!” Noely exclaimed.
After attending a Mercy Ships patient screening in August, Noely was confirmed as a candidate for goiter surgery later in the year, with no charge for any of the medical care.
Just four days after being admitted to the ship’s ward in January, Noely was headed home – minus the baseball-sized growth on his neck. He felt great!
When the effervescent Noely swung by for his six-week check-up, he had some stories to tell. “When I first arrived back to my village, people were amazed. Some people cried they were so happy. We had a really big party. They killed a pig and ten chickens, and we danced and ate with my family and friends. They were so happy to see me back happy and healthy!”
With a million-dollar smile, Noely quietly shared, “I am really happy. I’m thankful for the work Mercy Ships is doing in Madagascar.”
Written by Sharon Walls
Photos by Katie Keegan