“What do you want to be when you grow up?” someone asked 12-year-old Ulrich.
“I want to be tall like my friends,” he answered with a smile.
Even experienced nurses onboard the Africa Mercy had never seen a case quite like Ulrich’s. He was born with dislocated knees and a condition known as Quadriceps Contracture—a condition in which the leg muscles don’t develop at the same rate as the bones, causing the legs to bend drastically backward.
His mother, Georgette, tried desperately to find Ulrich the surgery he needed. But the cost of surgery and the severity of his condition defeated her hopes. “Surgeons wouldn’t touch him,” Georgette recalls. “It was hard to see him hurting. When he hurts, I hurt.”
Despite constant stares and ridicule, Ulrich adapted to his condition. He learned to walk with sticks made from sturdy branches. He even learned to climb trees higher than any other boy in his village! “When they couldn’t reach the tallest papaya, they’d call me! I’d be able to get it,” said Ulrich.
But his determination to be like other boys took its toll. He developed pain in his hands and joints from supporting his body weight and from walking long distances. “I was worried that if I was feeling such pain now, it was only going to get worse as I got older,” he said.
It broke his heart that it was increasingly difficult for him to help his mother by helping out around the house, collecting firewood, and fetching water. “I was scared to grow up like that. I didn’t want this to be all my life was ever going to be.”
The day Ulrich arrived on the Africa Mercy for his free surgery, volunteer surgeon Dr. Frank Haydon, who has volunteered with Mercy Ships for eight years, was shocked. “He moved like an insect … like a cricket. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Just when I think I’ve seen the worst case in my career, I meet the next Ulrich, and it keeps me going.”
After several complex surgeries, Ulrich woke up with two straight legs in casts. He had a hard time believing they were actually his legs. The first time he stood up, he reached up to see if he could touch the ceiling. “The first time he walked, he went straight into his mother’s embrace. It was the first time he had been able to hug her since standing tall,” said volunteer nurse Kirsten Murphy.
And now, Ulrich is walking straight and tall into acceptance and into his dream of an education.
“Before, when I would walk in the street, people would stare at me. They thought I was just a handicapped person, and they treated me differently. Now, they will look again,” smiled Ulrich.
Before Ulrich left the Africa Mercy, he slowly walked up to Dr. Haydon and handed him a very special gift … his old walking sticks. He won’t need them anymore, thanks to mercy.
Written by Georgia Ainsworth
Edited by Karis Johnson and Nancy Predaina
Photographs by Saul Loubassa Bighonda, Shawn Thompson and Marina Schmid