Be that ship
When I first arrived on the Africa Mercy in January, the ship was already over halfway through its field service in Senegal. I’d joined the crew at the end of the orthopaedic surgeries, so all the little patients that had their bowlegs or windswept legs straightened, had already had their surgeries. The reconstructive surgery and ophthalmic surgery blocks were starting, and I was allocated a few more communication patients from there. All “my” patients were children, with the youngest being 18 months, and the oldest being eleven.
If we’ve ever spoken about the stuff I’ve written over the years, you’ll know that I often become the person I’m writing about “in my head”. I try to imagine myself into their experience or situation. This has seen me take on a whole lot of different characters, albeit for a short amount of time. It can also be quite exhausting. Perhaps that’s why I like to write in solitude… But not to worry folks, so far, it’s always been me (hopefully sometimes a slightly improved version) that has returned from “that” place.
I found writing real-life stories about children to be a little more challenging than writing about an adult – perhaps because I’m not a parent, it’s been a while since I’ve been a kid myself, and I haven’t really hung around that many children as an adult. I would rely on my observations of the patients, as well as interactions and interviews with the medical staff. I would of course also interview the caregiver or parent, and patient (if they could speak) too.
Our day crew translated for me and were very open to helping me understand various cultural nuances. Interviewing across a language barrier takes time, and I tried hard not to ask leading questions, as I really wanted to get to the truth of every individuals story. As the large majority of Senegal is Muslim, their faith was another factor to be considered.
The good news is that most often, it was just the first interview that was tough, and after I knew more of each personal story, I was able to ask more thought-through, relevant questions. Still, everyone had to be super patient with me: the translator, the parent, the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, the kid (who often observed as I interviewed the parent), and sometimes even the photographer. And they were. Patience was in high levels of supply, all around me.
Nonetheless, writing about children is different to writing about adults, and I found myself really wanting to write about just one adult patient, perhaps even a woman, so that I could really relate to her. I had been allocated a patient in the April Women’s Health block and was looking forward to meeting her, but that was still months away.
At the beginning of March, I was talking to Chris in Admissions, who told me about a patient, around my age, who was scheduled to have cleft lip surgery. I started wondering what it would be like to have lived my life with a cleft lip – something which is a quick fix in a developed country. How would I have grown up? Would I have been teased or mocked? Would I still have the same friends? Gone to university? Ballet? Horseriding? Paragliding? Would people have wanted to speak to me? How would my family have been affected? Would I have ever been kissed? Would people outside my family have loved me?
I started the process of getting all the relevant permissions, when a second lady, also in her forties and with the same birth defect, was suggested to me by the Patient Screening team. I decided to write about both, and I’m so glad that I did, as I got to “live” the experience through two very different personalities.
When I first met both women, I felt the same confusing mix of emotions I have felt with every new deformity or disease or tumour or growth, or burn scars or burn contraction, that this new chapter of my life kept introducing me to. I don’t think I’ve spoken in any depth about this before, but I was constantly taken aback, as to what kind of health conditions people live with. Each silent “Oh my word” led to overwhelming compassion as I began to understand the burdens (social, physical, emotional) that some of these folks struggle with in their daily lives.
And each time an individual’s life was literally about to be changed for the better, I was reminded what a crazy and privileged position I was in. Even though I would not be directly involved in performing that medical miracle, it felt good to be a cog in the Mercy Ships machine.
I learned from both Awa and Aissatou, as well as from Dr Venter (who did their surgeries), that people adapt to living with their deformities in very different ways. They were both born with cleft lips, yet grew up to be like night and day. One is very introverted and initially struggled to make eye contact with me, whereas the other is a fun, bubbly extrovert. For both women, the operations made a huge difference: from a social acceptance point of view, as well as a personal health perspective.
I’ll share more about each of the women’s individual stories another time, but in the days after both their operations, I got to meet some members of their families. Families who thought that they would never see the day, that these women would be healed.
When Aissatou’s husband saw her again for the first time, he wept (then he couldn’t stop smiling). She wept. We all wept.
It was so special.
Awa was accompanied to the ship by her aunt, who took care of her gorgeous little baby while she was in surgery, and in recovery. A week later, when Awa was due for a check-up, her husband and brother also travelled to Dakar, to personally say thank you to Mercy Ships.
These are just two Mercy Ships moments that really brought home that doing one good thing for one person, has a ripple effect, and will touch the lives of people we may never meet or know.
In a time where nations are in such turmoil, the knowledge that we can contribute to making people a tad happier and lighten their load ever so slightly, makes me feel much more at peace with the world.
If I may, I’d like to challenge you. Right now, in whatever country you are in, imagine what it is like to be someone else, someone who has a little bit less than you do. Is there a way that you can help them right now?
Often, people do not even know that their need can be met, until that ship sails in.
Be that ship.
All photographs in this post were taken by John Seddon, photographer onboard the Africa Mercy.
Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.