Mary had endured years of her classmates’ taunting. “Bag face, bag face, bag face,” they shouted. A tumor covered her right eye, billowing over half her face. It made one side of her face droop down, and, as a result, Mary always looked sad. Day after day, the 14-year-old came home crying, tears trickling out from underneath her tumor. “Will this ever go away?” she wondered.
The tumor, a neurofibroma, had been growing for years. Such a tumor develops around the nerves and in rare cases reaches into the brain. The longer it is left untreated, the more dangerous it becomes.
The family took their daughter to doctor after doctor, only to hear the same answer, “No, we can’t help.” Days, months, and years slowly ticked by, and, steadily, Mary’s tumor continued to grow.
The family was preparing to take their daughter to Nigeria when they heard about Mercy Ships. At the end of a long, hot day, waiting in line at the Africa Mercy screening center, Mary received an appointment card. In a few weeks’ time she would see a surgeon who would decide for sure if her tumor was operable.
Mary waited for two more weeks. Her mother had decided it was best if her daughter remained at home until they had a more definitive answer. As the days wore on, Mary spent long afternoons playing by herself, quietly helping her mother with tailoring work, and anxiously awaiting her twin brother’s return from school every afternoon.
And then, the day finally came. Mary boarded a white Mercy Ships vehicle, entered the port, and finally looked at the ship for the first time. But she continued to wait – many patients had to be seen that day, and everyone waited by the dock.
Long into the afternoon, she sat, legs dangling, waiting for her name to be called. Finally, she and her mother were ushered into the medical tent. After years of waiting, they received wonderful news, “Yes, we’re happy to tell you…you’ll receive surgery – this week!” Mary’s mother beamed – she was delighted. As Mary glanced up, a hint of a smile crossed her face – a glimpse of hope after years of waiting.
Three days later, Mary went into surgery. Her mother sat quietly waiting, nodding her head as if in prayer. Hours later, Mary was wheeled back in with a thick bandage covering the right side of her face, where her tumor used to be.
But Mary continued to wait. The bandage wouldn’t be replaced with a smaller one for another two days. She had 48 hours before she would know for sure if her face was really tumor-free, if her “bag face” was now just a normal, healthy, 14-year-old girl’s face.
The time passed slowly. Mary colored, played games, and watched The Jungle Book. When the nurses finally came to replace the old bandage, Mary nervously fidgeted with a checker piece. Then a nurse put a mirror by the bed. Mary picked it up gingerly – a delicate and powerful object. She stared directly into the mirror, adjusted the angle and smiled … she was beautiful!
That night Mary spent hours in silent contemplation, just her and the mirror. She’d look away for a moment and then look back, checking to see if that really was her face. “Is the bag really gone?” she might have wondered. She’d look again. “Yes, really and truly … gone.”
Two weeks later, Mary again waited on the dock. She had been discharged and was back for her final appointment. Only a small x made of a few thin strips of tape remained to mark the spot where her tumor once was.
She sat in the back of the tent, a confident grin spreading over her face. “She’s like a different person now,” commented Lindsay McCurley, a nurse who took care of Mary in the wards. “It was amazing to see her transformation – the night before Mary left, she was dancing up a storm.”
And it’s true. Ever since her surgery, there’s a lightness in Mary – the burden has finally been lifted, and the wait is truly over.
Story by Anna Psiaki