She arrived at our gates barefoot. She didn’t have enough money to buy shoes. The dust covering her feet bore witness to how hard they had worked. They had seen the three a.m. stars in her home village, and they had walked ten long hours. She couldn’t afford a boat ride. After a few more hours by bus, her feet finally reached their destination . . . the steps of the Africa Mercy, a large hospital ship docked off the coast of Toamasina, Madagascar.
Her name is Salestine. The 49-year-old woman’s tiny frame, just over 66 pounds or 30 kilograms, was draped in clothes that were spotted and worn. A blood-red covering sheathed the bottom half of her face, hiding a secret – an ugly, flesh-coloured tumour, larger than an orange. It was slowly starving her to death. In fact, the Mercy Ships surgeon said, “If she had not come, she would have died within the year.”
Salestine’s tumour had slowly grown and grown, until it dominated her mouth . . . and began to extinguish her life. She was helpless – incredibly sick, plagued by pain, and confined to her house. She couldn’t afford shoes, let alone surgery.
She was so terribly alone. Both her husband and son had died from illness. Her other family members lived far away. Salestine says, “During this time, I could not do anything. I still had a desire to be alive, but I didn’t know what to do. I stayed lonely at home. Lonely.”
Thanks to her generous neighbours, who gave her food, she survived. For several months before she arrived at our hospital ship, she could only eat mashed bananas and drink water. She had to lift the tumour to place the food in her mouth.
It was hard to talk, hard to interact. And not everyone was kind. Some people told her, “You are going to die soon anyway. There is no need to look after you.” Salestine says, “I was angry, but I didn’t know what to do. I kept quiet because they are stronger than me, and I could not do anything.”
When she heard about a ship that specialized in removing certain kinds of tumours, it sounded too good to be true. But she had nothing to lose – she was going to die anyway. So she gathered her courage, covered her mouth, flung her door open, and walked thousands of steps toward Mercy Ships . . . toward hope.
And thus began the process of bringing Salestine out of hiding. A free 20-minute surgery removed the tumour that had plagued her for 10 years. It was gone forever.
Her heart also began to tentatively emerge from darkness. Connie Czepiel (USA), a Mercy Ships accounts receivable clerk, befriended Salestine. She describes her first view of Salestine: “She was not talking, not interacting … sometimes she’d have her back to people … looking at the wall. Her son had died. She was crying when Rosie prayed with her. That was the first time someone had prayed for her in a long time. She was in grief … depressed.”
So Connie, along with a mini-army of determined volunteers, loved on Salestine unconditionally, day and night. Connie says, “Many times we’d sit in silence. She’s a quiet person. I’m a quiet person. And that’s okay. We just wanted her to know [that we care].”
Slowly, Salestine’s protective shell began to crack, letting light in. She began to trust, to open up. Connie learned about the person underneath. She describes Salestine: “Determined … there was just a spark … a can-do type. We taught her to make a bracelet. She caught onto things quickly. If given different opportunities in life, she would have gone far.”
The real transformation came when Salestine decided to become a follower of Jesus. She’d thought that God could not love her until her disease was cured. But the crew let her know that God loved her with or without her disease. “From that day on, she seemed a lot happier … a lot more peace, a lot more joy, a lot less grief. She began interacting with people. She started smiling and laughing more … I can’t describe how wonderful it was to see such a transformation, both physically and spiritually,” Connie says.
On the day Salestine left our hospital, there were amazing differences in her appearance – the red covering was gone, and her eyes and her lips were smiling.
Salestine is somewhere in Madagascar now, alive and free. Free to face the world unafraid of what people think, free to make friends, free to work, free to make money and free to fulfil her desire of building a new house, free to eat. (She told us that she was looking forward to eating stewed chicken.) She is free to live.
Now Salestine has nothing to hide or to hide behind.
– By Eunice Hiew, writer on board the Africa Mercy