I get boys. I understand how they tick. I like how they are loud, energetic and messy. In fact, my husband and I have three of our own.
But I don’t get little girls, not at all. In two years volunteering on the Africa Mercy, getting to know lots of kid patients, I’d never connected with a female.
So how did I first get to know five-year- old Gifty? She sat on me, literally. One Sunday service in the wards my husband Mick and I were sitting side by side, minding our own business. Gifty must have decided that we needed to be sitting differently, because she came over, and not only sat on us, but proceeded to rearrange us as she saw fit.
She climbed all over us – putting our arms on each others’ shoulders and my head against Mick. I felt like a piece of plasticine. And all of this was done without talking – as Gifty was born with a very large cleft in the middle of her face. … Note: Gifty and her mum, Joyce, are from Liberia, West Africa.
Gifty is Joyce’s sweetheart, her only child. Since birth, Joyce’s been devoted to her daughter, looking high and low for a place Gifty can get surgery. With the help of Samaritan’s purse, after five years of searching, the mom and daughter were finally able to come to the Africa Mercy. … Soon, Gifty underwent her very complex surgery.
She had her cleft lip and palette repaired, a nose created and also some cranial manipulation around her eyes. It was a massive operation for a little five-year-old. And afterward, she wanted to get out of the hospital as soon as she could! But Gifty wasn’t going to get her wish – not soon anyway. She needed to rest, and that meant staying in bed! Even though Gifty wasn’t too happy about it, this gave Joyce and I a chance to get to know each other. In the evenings, we’d sit together, playing game after game of UNO.
At first Gifty would just lie there disinterested – she was in too much post-surgery pain to care. But within a few days, I could tell she wanted to join in the fun. Slithers of her big personality began to resurface, albeit for short periods of time. But not long after, Gifty finally was allowed to leave the hospital – headed for the more-fun HOPE Centre (the Mercy Ships outpatient facility). Her recovery would be a long one – not only did her wounds need to heal, she also needed to learn how to talk for the first time eve.
So that is how Gifty, Joyce and I really got to know each other. We tried bubbles, we tried straws, and pretty soon, we were teaching Gifty how to read and write – helping her sound out every letter, number and syllable. And wow did Gifty improve. She started off writing squiggles, but was soon forming careful and straight letters. She started off whispering “A, b, c” in my ear, but soon started talking more and more loudly. And she started off shy, but soon was running to greet me when I’d arrive, giving me a big hug, taking my hand, yanking me to the picnic table to start our next lesson. One day, towards the end of Gifty’s time here, Joyce asked for my photo. She said she wanted to show Gifty’s ‘ship mum’ to her family back home – it took me a moment to realise that she meant me.
In that instant, I realized I changed. I’ll never again just be a ‘Mum of boys’ – A little girl has stolen my heart. … NOTE: Gifty and mom Joyce have made it safely back home to Liberia. Because of her severe cleft, Joyce never sent Gifty to school – she’d be ridiculed too much. Instead, she taught Gifty at home. But now, after surgery, Joyce is ready for her daughter to enroll. Thanks to mum and “ship-mum’s” partnership, Gifty will start school able to read, write and speak.
Written by: Tammy Dunne, adapted by Anna Psiaki