“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 “When she was first admitted, she was very withdrawn and didn’t smile or talk to anyone very much.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
All it took was one presentation from Mercy Ships to convince Therese Lovund that she wanted to be a part of the organization. After finishing school, Therese was open to the infinite possibilities in front of her. She decided to complete her Disciple Training School (DTS) in England in 2001 and it was there that she first heard about Mercy Ships.“I just felt I had a calling for something more,” she says.
Therese served as a volunteer Ophthalmic Technician in the Republic of Congo and again in the Republic of Madagascar. She was touched by the value that Mercy Ships places on its volunteers.“I like that everyone is equal. It’s emphasized again and again, everywhere,that no matter where you work, you are a big part of what is going in the OR.And to me that’s priceless.” Therese Lovund’s decision to become an optometrist was driven by her desire to serve with Mercy Ships in Africa. Therese remembers being in Newcastle doing her DTS (Discipleship Training School) in 2001 when a team from the ship came and talked to them about the Mercy Ships and she realized, “that’s what I want to do”. She always thought that she would go to school quickly and head to straight to Africa, but things took longer than she thought.
She remembers, “I had this card, a Mercy Ships post card,that my friend gave to me and told me, ‘Don’t give up on the dream!’” After coming for a short term visit in 2008, she finally came back in 2013 to fulfill her dream of serving long term on the ship. After serving in Congo and the first field service in Madagascar, she went home during the second outreach in Madagascar….to get married! “In Madagascar, because of different circumstances,we had to put the eye team on hold and so starting up this year has been exciting” Therese says, “I was happy that I was able to come back at this time and being pretty experienced with the eye team I was able to help start it again.”
It turns out that being an optometrist in Africa is very different from being an optometrist in Norway, mostly because the perspective is very different. “Here it’s helping people…it’s see or not see. Instead of see perfect or see a little bit less than perfect.” Working with Mercy Ships means that she gets to see daily transformations in patients. Therese remembers a patient she treated a few weeks ago, a 19 year-old named Paula, whose diabetes caused white cataracts in both eyes. “I remember her coming in, she couldn’t see anything. You know when you can’t see other people’s faces you don’t have much of a facial expression, you’re serious” she says, “she had surgery in both eyes and the thing is she can see, it’s almost 20/20, it’s almost perfect after the surgery, which is amazing and she was so happy.”
Therese says Africa has really transformed the way she sees people and the way she does her job. Because she’s very task oriented she said at the beginning she could come off as very cold, focused on the other fifty people who were waiting for her and getting the job done. Being with Mercy Ships has taught her that each person matters, “It’s all about seeing that one patient that you have in front of you, it’s a life, it’s a person, it’s not the group. And for that one person, it is life changing that they can now tie their own shoelaces or walk by themselves.” She’s not sure what will come next, saying “I used to have a five-year plan. I used to have a plan but it always ended in Mercy Ships.” She is living in the present and no longer focuses on what’s next. She feels like she is in the right place and loves going to work every day.
Are you looking for a job that gets you excited to come to work every day?
The 2017 Hospital Out-Patient Extension (HOPE) in Cameroon is almost complete thanks to your generosity and support!! We can’t wait to share with you the completed renovations, but until then, let us tell you more about the site history and what we have planned.
What is the HOPE Centre?
A non-clinical, temporary residence for patients and their caregivers who have received surgical services onboard the Africa Mercy. Once discharged from the ship’s hospital, patients and their caregivers stay at the HOPE Centre as they continue to recover and receive follow-up care. For these patients, the HOPE Centre provides a safe, secure, and hygienic facility where patients can reside until they are able to return to their homes. Importantly, the HOPE Centre frees up precious bed space in the hospital wards on the ship. By freeing up beds in the wards, the HOPE Centre allows better optimization of the ship’s surgical capacity.
The two-story structure where the 222 bed HOPE Centre will be was once used as a small business development centre, and the warehouse formerly housed a workshop. Several outbuildings are also present on site and can be used to further expand the planned capacity of the HOPE Centre (guardhouse and gazebo). We selected this site for renovations to enable the buildings to be used as an expansion of the adjacent Nylon District Hospital.
Previously, these premises were used as a business and storage site. With the assistance of the regional government, numerous water storage cubes, plastic storage barrels, and abandoned cars were removed from the site to allow access for renovations to begin. The team has been working on various upgrades to the two existing office buildings allowing for their intended use. The onsite warehouse has received substantial upgrades and redevelopment work making it useable as a HOPE Centre and possibly the Ponseti Clinic. It will later be used by the Ministry of Health.
The Nylon District Hospital
The Nylon District Hospital was originally purpose-built more than 30 years ago as a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic. This 75-bed hospital provides specialties in maternity, gynecology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, radiology and pediatrics. Other available services include a pharmacy, laboratory, and radiology (x-ray and ultrasound). Approximately 75 nurses, seven medical doctors, one gynecologist, and four nurse anesthetists staff this hospital. However, there are no surgeons staffed at this hospital. As needed, the hospital uses visiting surgeons for emergency surgical issues In support of the different services, there is one operating room with a separate recovery room. The hospital serves an estimated 400,000 persons living in the district.
The hospital is often without electricity and there is currently no back-up generator. The hospital grounds are clean and well kept, however, there is a large backlog of waste within the steel fencing that surrounds the incinerator. One person operates this small multi-fuel incinerator installed by MSF for the clinic, which is not always operational. We continue to collaborate with the Nylon District Hospital and the Ministry of Health to complete the renovations and expand the Nylon facility for the long-term.
Throughout our field service in Cameroon, the Hospital Chaplaincy Team will provide prayer, counsel, and comfort to hundreds of patients at the HOPE Centre. Day crew will be visiting the HOPE Centre and spending time with patients and their families, offering their love and support.
We are extremely grateful for the continued support of Canadians for making this renovation possible. We look forward to updating you further, and are excited to fill the 222 beds with patients and their families.
“When I was 12, I saw a woman on TV … her suitor had burned her with acid. Her face had become fused to her neck, so she could never look a person in the eye.” Dr. Odry Agbessi mimics the condition, tucking her chin in close to her throat. “There was not one plastic surgeon to help her in Benin, and the family did not have enough money. So people pitched in to send her abroad. I was so touched by that story, that’s when I chose my profession,” she says.
That was years ago, but it steered Odry’s course from then on. After graduating from secondary school, she began her medical studies in Benin. “The journey has not always been easy. In my country, women do not often become surgeons,” she says.
Eight years later, she finished her general degree in medicine, going on to win a scholarship to study plastic surgery in Morocco. But due to family circumstances, Odry decided to stay at home, where she spent another eight years practicing general surgery. “Then I was offered the opportunity again,” she says. By this time, things had changed, and Odry went to Morocco, finally able to pursue her goal.
“It was in 2015 that I finally succeeded in becoming a plastic surgeon,” she says. “Of course, there were many times it wasn’t easy, times I wanted to give up,” she recounts, “but, with strong spiritual support, I finally became Benin’s first plastic reconstructive surgeon.”
Dr. Odry Agbessi sits in the cafeteria onboard the Africa Mercy, squeezing in lunch between mentoring sessions with volunteer plastic surgeon Dr. Tertius Venter. She’s eager to get back down to the OR, but it’s not her first time in the Africa Mercy hospital. She loves coming to the Africa Mercy because of the atmosphere and the way people interact with one another, including with the patients. During the ship’s last visit to Benin in 2009, she assisted Mercy Ships surgeons. Now, with the Africa Mercy’s return, she joins Dr. Venter whenever time permits. “We can teach and learn a lot,” says Dr. Venter. “I was certainly impressed with her knowledge.”
“I’m learning a lot,” Dr. Agbessi says. “I’m finally learning how to really operate on burns. That’s been my goal since age 12.”
In West Africa, it’s rare that medical professionals have the opportunity to gain advanced training, practice on newer technology, and liaise with experts in their field. That’s one reason so many African doctors leave for Europe, Australia, or the States. “It’s not that it’s hard to keep your skills updated here … it’s impossible,” comments Amy Jones, Project Manager for the Mercy Ships Medical Capacity Building (MCB) Team.
But for Dr. Agbessi, staying in Benin is a must – surgeons may leave, but patients cannot. So, she has to find ways to gain and share knowledge. “Earlier this year, Dr. Agbessi sought me out and told me that she needed to attend our pain management class,” recounts Abby Watrous (USA), of Mercy Ships MCB team, remembering when Dr. Odry first approached her.
“Afterwards, she thought it was such important knowledge to have, that she taught the course to 20 nurses at her own hospital, CNHU, which also happens to be Benin’s largest teaching hospital,” adds Jones. Thanks to Dr. Agbessi’s efforts, the course is now part of CNHU’s core curriculum for certain specialties.
Dr. Agbessi is Benin’s first and only plastic reconstructive surgeon. As she continues working in her own operating theater, she’s not blind to the challenges she’ll face. “We see a lot of things here,” she says … and that probably includes women as badly burned as the one who inspired her in the first place.
“I believe that when you are given a gift, you are meant to share it,” she says. And that is exactly what she’s doing.
Story by Anna Psiaki
WATCH DR. ODRY’S STORY BELOW
Ride for Refuge, is the super-fun, family-friendly walking/cycling fundraiser – and Mercy Ships Canada is proud to be a participating charity once again. Locations are found across Canada, or you can ride or walk anywhere (special conditions apply). Start your own team, or join an existing one. Check out: https://rideforrefuge.org/charity/mercyshipscanada to register.
Can’t participate this year? Simply use the link above to find a Mercy Ships team and sponsor a rider. All donations over $20 will receive an income tax receipt issued by the organizer Blue Sea Philanthropy.
For every $300 you raise, a ballot in your name will be entered into a draw for one free return airline ticket** to a destination in Canada that can be booked through Air Miles. Relatives in the East? Vacation in the West? Want to see the Northern Lights? It’s possible!
(Note: terms and conditions apply – click here)
Get up off your couch- or out of your hammock and meet new friends! Walk 5 km or ride 10, 25 or even 50! A free healthy lunch is even included. Yum, yum!
Need an addition to your athletic wardrobe? How about a Ride for Refuge 2017 limited edition T shirt? Yours for just $150 in raised funds. Now everyone will know how cool you really are!
What are you really doing on September 30th?Cutting the lawn? Calling your Mother-in-Law? Hosting a dinner party for un-wanted guests? Sign up and get your best excuse ever!
Help us raise funds for free surgeries in Cameroon, West Africa. Help a child walk, a Mother see, or a Father survive a life-threatening tumour. You will know in your heart that indeed, you are an amazing hero!