This is What Not Giving Up Looks Like

Patient Djaliou

“My family said he was too tiny – he would die with surgery and die without surgery. They told me not to bother taking Djaliou to the ship,” recounted Sara…

Remembering when she was first told her son could have a free operation onboard the Africa Mercy. The five-month-old was born with a rare condition, something most of our surgeons had only read about. A mass on the infant’s tongue, present since birth, made it difficult for him to breathe or eat – which made it nearly impossible for him to grow. The energy the baby got from his mother’s milk was mostly used just to get air into his body. Whenever he inhaled, his ribcage would shudder as if he were taking his last breath.

But even with the odds against her little boy, Sara persisted. Although he couldn’t breastfeed, she was able to manually pump milk for him – but even then, Djaliou drank little. And, although most of her family advised Sara to give up her son as dead, her husband thought differently. “Go to the ship,” he said. So Sara packed a few things and made the ten-hour trek, with her silent baby – he had no strength to cry – tucked close.

Djaliou and Sara
Djaliou and his mother Sara

But upon coming to the ship, Djaliou wasn’t a “quick fix.” His relatives had been right – at 4.7 pounds, the 3-month-old weighed far too little for surgery. Even though it was difficult for him to eat, he had to gain weight for any chance to live. For almost two months, Djaliou and his mother stayed at the HOPE Center, the Mercy Ships outpatient facility, working regularly with Lee-Anne Borrow (AUS), a volunteer dietician and the head of the Africa Mercy Infant Feeding Program. Slowly, the baby put on weight.

Even so, Sara remained ambivalent. “I always had two ideas in my head,” she recounted. “Sometimes I thought my baby would die. Sometimes I thought he would live …”

Patient Djalilou
Djalilou in the surgery screening tent

And perhaps Sara was right to remain cautious – even though Djaliou was closer and closer to being ready for surgery, such a specialized operation would require just the right group of experts, experts who were not yet onboard the Africa Mercy.

But then, almost two months after Sara had brought her son to the ship, the perfect scenario developed. “It’s really incredible,” said Lee-Anne. “We had an Ear Nose and Throat specialist and a Pediatric Anesthesiologist overlap here for a short window of time – they were exactly who we needed.”

Within a few days, Djaliou was whisked onboard the Africa Mercy – he would have surgery the following morning. But that night, even as the ward grew silent, the voices of Sara’s family began to echo through the mother’s head. “I did not sleep,” she recounts. “I was remembering what people had said – that my son would die during the operation.”

Djaliou and Laura McDonald
Djaliou is cared for by Paediatric Ward Nurse Laura McDonald after his surgery

The next day, the operating team worked from morning till night, slowly removing the mass from Djaliou’s tongue. All the while, Sara waited, speaking very little to anyone. But, as evening approached, she was finally called into the recovery room. There was her son, Djaliou – alive.

Patient Djaliou
Ward Nurse Deb Adesanya holds baby Djaliou on the ward

A week after surgery, Sara sat next to Lee-Anne, watching as her son played with the dietician’s Africa Mercy badge. Djaliou had recovered quickly, and it was already his second-to-last checkup. Immediately after the operation, his breathing became much easier, and he began crying like a normal baby. Within a few days, he was even able to drink by himself.

“Now I’m just waiting until you’ll tell me I can go home,” Sara said with a laugh, looking at her son as he cooed. “I want to show everyone he is alive.”

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