The line stretched for blocks. Men, women and children stood in the hot African sun, waiting, praying, hoping for their chance to have life-changing surgery, many after years of having been told doctors in this third-world country could not help them. Many of those in line had walked days for one chance at a new life.
Seeing the kinds of health challenges in a poverty-stricken country was eye-opening. Whereas a tumor growing out of the neck or face would, in America, be caught and treated early, in this third-world country it is likely to grow unchecked.
During our church’s missions week, Don and I watched the first segment of a National Geographic documentary on Mercy Ships, showing now in the UK and hopefully coming to the US in a few months. The 450-person crew, including medical personnel and surgeons, are all volunteers. The images we saw were so powerful I didn’t even want to blink while watching.
My heart went out to the male nurse triaging the folks in line. What grace of God must be needed to say to someone, “I’m sorry, we don’t have the kind of doctor you need. We can’t help you here.” Or, “I’m sorry, your child is dying and we can’t help.” And yet, in many of those cases someone from the ship will follow up with the family, giving counsel, sometimes hospice services. Of the 5000 or so we saw in line, about 720 were selected for surgery.
And what joy to say to someone, “We can help you; we can help your child.”
A man with a tumor the size of his head growing out of his chin, could hardly be understood because speaking was so difficult. He shrouded his head in cloths and knew his disfigurement limited his ability to get a job, to have a somewhat normal life. When he first looked into a mirror following a delicate surgery to remove the tumor without sacrificing critical nerve connections, his smile was broad and beautiful. His handsome, dark eyes shone with what looked like hope.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12
Seven-month old Haingo had a severe cleft palate, with a hole in the top of her mouth that didn’t allow her to breastfeed. She was slowly starving to death, her 7-month weight below 7 pounds! When a stranger told Haingo’s mother about Mercy Ships, Viviaby walked two days to get to a place where she could find transportation to the ship. Volunteer nurses immediately started Haingo on a round-the-clock nutrition regimen to help her gain enough weight to safely undergo the surgery. When the little girl finally reached 7.7 pounds, surgeons corrected her cleft lip and palate, giving her the ability to thrive, to eat and drink and learn to speak well. What a beautiful little girl!
The new Africa Mercy is the largest civilian hospital ship in the world, including five operating theaters, rooms for recovery and intensive care. Their capacity is 7000 interventions a year–from removing life-threatening tumors to repairing cleft palates.
What we forget in a country of privilege is that hope comes with having options: we can treat, wait and watch, or try different approaches. Hope is also about the possibility of getting help. One patient said her doctor had told her to wait until the big white Mercy Ship came and to go there for the help she needed, which he could not provide.
We were deeply touched by the significant ministry being conducted on Mercy Ships, by the hundreds of volunteers who do everything from scrubbing the decks, to cooking, to surgery and follow-up care.
For more information, stories, and ways to give, go to: https://www.mercyships.org/international/
Lord, have mercy! And may we be a part of that mercy.
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward them for what they have done.”