Six-year old Elina and her mother were coaxed out of the bushes. They had been waiting, undetected, for the crowds to thin at a medical screening center in Madagascar. After a Mercy Ships nurse named Ria invited Elina to come out of hiding, she discovered the disfiguring burns that covered a significant part of the child’s body – fusing her right arm, neck and cheek together into a painfully restrictive stance.
Ria asked Elina’s mother what had happened to her daughter. A translator tried her best to share the message but simply couldn’t because she was overcome with emotion. A second translator took over the exchange. She, too, was overcome with emotion but managed to deliver the tragic truth: Elina had been burned – literally held in open flames – in retaliation over a family dispute. Although the person responsible had been caught, the damage was done … sadly, Elina would never be the same. She had spent the months in extreme pain as her body tried to heal itself. But, with no access to emergency treatment, severe burn contractures had formed, and serious infection was setting in.
Her burns required significant wound care and dressing changes in order to heal properly before any surgical procedures could be considered to release the contractures caused by the scars. Multiple surgeries would be needed, including skin grafts, as well as ample time for full recovery. Proper physical therapy and rehabilitation would be essential. Taking all of this into account, the case fell outside the scope of what Mercy Ships could commit to within the time constraints of the field service.
But Ria felt a tug at her heart to help. “There was something about Elina. I decided I was going to fight for her.”
The case was presented to a medical review board for consideration to determine whether treatment could be managed successfully and would be in the best interest of the patient. Ria was delighted when she received the go-ahead to let Elina and her mother know that surgery was approved. But then a new challenge presented itself. Ria could not find the contact information for Elina. So, hitting the streets, she drove around town, searching for a sign of Elina or her mother and asking God for help. She spoke to people along the way, asking if they could help, but to no avail.
Just when it seemed she’d never find them, Ria happened upon a group of women on the side of the road. She showed them a photo of Elina. “Yes! I do know her!” one woman replied. “She’s my granddaughter!” She showed Ria the way to Elina’s home, where Ria personally delivered the exciting message. It was truly a joyous occasion that included many sighs of relief. However, this was just the beginning of what would be a very long road.
Regular visits to the ship’s outpatient treatment center allowed Elina to receive proper wound care. At first, she fought back as nurses tried to gently remove the painful bandages and clean the wounds.
After a few months, Elina had healed enough to be admitted to the ship’s hospital. Through a series of complex surgeries, the volunteer surgeons successfully released the contractures and performed skin grafts, providing a better chance for Elina to eventually move her arm, neck and head more normally.
The recovery period took months, but it was a special time. Elina grew stronger every day. Her range of motion continued to improve as she reached her arms higher and higher above her head, through playful and creative exercises designed by the nurturing therapists.
While Elina worked hard to get better, she didn’t have to work at wiggling her way into the hearts of crew members. One of her new friends, an HR guy named Ben, made every effort to check in on Elina regularly. Since he had an office job during the day, patient interaction wasn’t part of his job duties.
But he took it upon himself to run down to the hospital ward on his days off or during break time. Together he and Elina played funny games, made silly faces and exchanged lots of smiles. Ben liked visiting Elina because, well, “she just made things better.” Ben described her as having “big brown eyes and a laugh that cures bad days.” He and Elina formed a special bond, and he’d push her around the ward in a little red car.
Ben struggled with the injustice of the situation that caused Elina’s injuries, but he came to terms with it in his own way. He said, “I understood that what Elina truly needed (and I could actually provide) was not an account to be balanced, but love that granted a chance for laughter.” And that’s exactly what he did. From down the hall, you could see Elina smiling and squealing his name, demanding with a pointing finger that he’d “do it again” – maybe a bit faster this time.
Ria extended her love for Elina to the rest of the girl’s family. She traveled to their home to check in, quickly learning the Malagasy language so she could have meaningful conversations. It was as though she was Elina’s “loving Aunty,” accepted into the family because of her shared love for the little girl, which went beyond words. At Christmas time, Ria delivered a goose to the family as a gift, and they celebrated their new friendship.
Elina didn’t have a clue that her courageous six-year-old spirit would leave such a mark on the Mercy Ships family. “It was beautiful to see how we all worked together from all different areas to care for Elina,” said Ria.
Unexpected bonds formed between Elina and so many others. By the time she left the ship to go home, she was bright and shining. Sometimes it takes a village, other times a ship, to raise a child like Elina out of despair. Her scars will remain, but hopefully they will remind her less of the pain and more of the people who grew to love her so dearly.
Story by Windsor Marchesi