Isabelle lives in a small village in the mountains of Northern Madagascar. There is no doctor or medical clinic nearby, so when Isabelle’s face began to hurt and swell a year ago, there was no one to turn to for help. “I had a toothache, and I thought it was my tooth swelling. But it kept getting bigger and bigger, and it didn’t stop” she recalls.
The side of her face become more and more disfigured, and eventually a large lump formed on her right cheek. Then her life began to change.
Isabelle was banned from school when her teacher told her “You cannot come here because of your face.” She was made an outcast by others in her village, who would call to her “Don’t come near! I don’t want your disease!”
Isabelle was living in fear and pain every day, remembering “I was afraid and was praying to God asking, ‘What is this problem? Why is it growing?’”
Each evening in their small mud-and-thatch hut, Isabelle’s family roll their sleeping mats out on the hard-packed earth floor. They huddle together and listen to radio broadcasts – a lifeline for an isolated community. One night Isabelle heard something on the radio that changed her life. She recounts “It said those who have diseases, Mercy Ships is doing free surgery. Don’t hesitate to come.”
As her father was away and her mother had just given birth to a baby girl, Isabelle and her older brother set off for the Mercy Ships patient screening. The siblings walked for two days on the muddy road, stopping at villages for food, water and shelter along the way.
The long journey was worth their effort. The rapidly growing tumor on Isabelle’s face was examined at the patient screening location, and she was given a date to arrive at the Mercy Ship for free surgery to remove the tumor. This time, her big sister accompanied her as she traveled from the middle of the island down to the coast. Isabelle caught her first glimpse of the ocean and the hospital ship that would change her life.
The visible swelling was only one third of the tumor. The hidden part of the growth relentlessly pushed up behind her eye, back into her cranial cavity, and was embedded down in the right side of her upper jaw. Isabelle and her family were unaware that without specialized surgery her expanding facial deformity could eventually make Isabelle blind in one eye.
A month after she was first examined, Isabelle received her free surgery. Maxillofacial specialist and Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gary Parker, and another surgeon, Dr Leo Chen, performed a series of complex procedures that removed the tumor and every piece of bone that it had begun to devour. They then used bone and muscle grafts to carefully reconstruct her face, cheekbone and eye socket, rebuild the right half of her upper jaw and remodeled the side of her nose. They also transferred muscle to restore her cheek and complete her nose.
Just two weeks after surgery, Isabelle was ready to go home. She returned to her village with stories of the ocean, having her fingernails painted and her picture taken for the first time. With the source of her pain and suffering gone, Isabelle is now back at school, welcomed by her friends and community.