I remember my first Mercy Ships screening day as if it were yesterday. It was a hot and humid day in the port city of Toamasina, Madagascar—an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, well known primarily through the DreamWorks film by the same title. Unlike the film, there are no wild animals in the area we were based (although there are plenty of lemurs, aye-ayes and other wild animals in other areas of the island). People here survive on less than $1.90 a day, making Madagascar the 34th poorest country in the world and the 9th poorest in Africa.
Specialized surgeries may not sound like a big deal in the United States, but a recent study found over 5 billion people in the world lack access to safe and affordable surgery; more people die from lack of surgery than from tuberculosis, malaria and HIV combined! Around the world, lack of surgery is actually killing people with treatable conditions.
Mercy Ships’ mission is to decrease that staggering number and offer free, specialized surgeries to the poorest countries in the world by way of a hospital ship.
A light breeze is in the air, cooling the temperatures slightly, but we expect temperatures to hover well over 100 degrees—with close to 100 percent humidity—in just a few hours. I load into one of many Toyota Land Cruisers at 6:30 in the morning with the rest of my communications colleagues and many of the ship’s crew. On the short drive, I reflect on how the way I look at the world will probably change drastically before the day is over.
As the vehicle reaches the street running along the screening site, the scene materializing before my eyes makes me aware of exactly how needed Mercy Ships is. Thousands of people stand in line for the chance to see a doctor, hoping we could offer them a free specialized surgery. It’s already hot, and many of these people began lining up the night before.
A thought pops into my head of the comfy, air-conditioned space at my own doctor’s office back home. I often complain about the wait there. But as I look around in front of me, I see there is no sitting area or air conditioning or “Good Morning America” playing in the background while the polite receptionist answers the phone—only people in dire need.
My senses quickly go into overdrive trying to take in all the sights and sounds around me as we drive slowly past the growing line. However, I can only catch an orthopedic case here, an obvious facial tumor there. What I take in most is the sheer volume of people who need help, people hoping someone will say yes when for so long all they have heard is no. The tears quickly well up in my eyes, and for a moment I think I won’t be able to get out of the vehicle.
I look over at my colleagues and lock eyes with Justine Forrest, one of our photographers from Australia and my partner-in-crime on most stories; she too had tears running down her face. Big things were already happening, even if it was in our own lives.
Justine and I—along with every other individual working on a Mercy Ship—are volunteers working on the Africa Mercy, one of two vessels in the Mercy Ships fleet. Over 400 people volunteer and live together on this ship, representing over 35 different countries. Through the support of our home churches, family, friends and sometimes even our savings accounts, we pay for the privilege of serving people so that all donations made to Mercy Ships can go straight to medical care. We also donate our talents.
For some, the talents are medical in nature. For others (like me), our talents are as diverse as our nationalities; from writing, to cooking and cleaning to mechanics, we all serve the overwhelming need in our own way.
Screening Day for One Small Boy
Nowhere is the need more evident than on patient-screening day, when patients come to a designated location and receive an evaluation to determine if Mercy Ships can provide the surgery they need. Patient screening is intensely organized as people are pre-screened outside. Only viable candidates are allowed through the gates.
It doesn’t take my eyes long to land on a middle-aged Malagasy man holding a toddler who is in obvious discomfort. With a translator in tow, I begin to make conversation with the child’s father, Asad. He transparently shows me the reason for their visit; his son has several large tumors inside his mouth and on his right leg. Every time Asad adjusts the boy’s position, I can hear a faint, heart-breaking cry.
I learn a few things in those early moments. I learn that Asad absolutely adores his four year-old son, Fanumesah. I learn that Fanumesah means gift in Malagasy. I learn that Asad and his wife, Delfin, traveled about nine hours in a cramped bus with fifteen other people to reach the screening site.
And I learn Fanumesah has quite the fighting spirit.
Soon Delfin joins us in conversation. I learn her son was healthy and happy until the tumors began appearing when he was only two years old. The last two years were particularly difficult, as any money the couple earned went to Fanumesah’s care. I learn they would not even be here at the screening site had it not been for the kindness of a stranger who heard their plight and offered to pay for their travel expenses.
“I know that God brought Mercy Ships here to heal my son,” Delfin says through my translator, her voice confident but slightly shaky.
On hope and faith, this couple made a long trek from outside the capital city of Antananarivo to Toamasina. As I continue to talk and wait in line with them, I begin to understand why people cling to hope. I, too, begin to hope his condition is something we can treat, even though my gut tells me we might not be able to help.
That’s the tough part about screening day, we can make a difference in many lives, but we cannot make a difference in every life. However, we can show mercy and compassion to every one we meet.
I hold my breath and follow Fanumesah and his parents inside the screening building and wait outside the examination room, observing behind a glass window. The nurse gently examines Fanumesah and records his medical history in her notes while she talks to the family. Her face is full of kindness even though she has already put in a full day, and it is not even lunchtime yet. I watch helplessly from behind a glass window as the nurse shakes her head and places her hand on Delfin’s arm. It is not the first time today she has delivered difficult news; it probably won’t be the last.
I watch as the family is led out of the examination room to a prayer and counseling area. Delfin, finally absorbing the information she has just received, clings to her baby boy and begins to weep uncontrollably. Overwhelmed with grief, Asad hugs his wife, unable to do any more. Despite not being able to offer a surgical option for the child, Mercy Ships will support the family with palliative care.
Fanumesah will be as comfortable as possible—until the end.
Many may not understand why not every individual can be helped. The medical answer is Mercy Ships specializes in six areas, and some things are beyond even our help. The number one rule of health practitioners is to never leave your patient in worse condition. Mercy Ships provides total care, not partial care that can sometimes do more harm than good. Fanumesah needs so much more than just a simple surgery. He needs chemotherapy and extended treatment well beyond the time the ship would be in Madagascar. Each year, Mercy Ships provides thousands of surgeries, but the need is great.
For me, there is a more spiritual answer: If we could make a difference in everyone’s life, we wouldn’t need God in the equation. We wouldn’t learn to trust Him and believe His plans are greater than ours, especially when we don’t understand them.
I join Fanumesah and his parents in the prayer area to pray for this incredible, courageous family I journeyed with for such a short time. I learned so much from them. Honestly, all I could think about was how small I was and how helpless I felt. How do I reconcile that with the knowledge there is a loving, merciful and gracious Heavenly Father? Why is my all-powerful God seemingly powerless to stop such pain?
It didn’t even take a full day for my worldview to change. All it took was a few short hours spent with an incredible gift.
I have come to understand I don’t have all the answers, and so much of what I do is just trust God’s ways are better and that something good can still come from such a difficult experience. However, in that moment, I realized how much I take for granted and how fortunate I am that, purely by God’s grace, I was chosen to live in the United States, a place where I have access to the best health care in the world. A friend once told me that to whom much is given, much is expected. I am blessed with so much, and I couldn’t do anything to heal Fanumesah.
But I could share his story.
Telling His Story
I hug Delfin goodbye and shake Asad’s hand as I wipe away my own tears. I grab my notepad and pen, and holding tightly to the reminder that Fanumesah’s name means gift, I go back to work. Because this is the only way I can honor him and his family, through the stroke of my pen. The only way I know how to give back to the world is by sharing these stories of hope so kids like Fanumesah are not forgotten, so stories of faith like that of his parents are not just glanced over.
I walk out of the hospital building, and right in front of me is Justine photographing a group of children—at least four or five of them—all with clubbed feet. They are playing in a big group, chasing after bubbles another volunteer is blowing. I sit next to Justine and the mom of one of the little boys. The mother tells me through a translator she has never seen other children with clubbed feet; she thought her son was the only one. Now, she knows he wasn’t, and they were no longer alone.
If I can help it, soon the world will know his story too.
This story is not officially endorsed by Mercy Ships; any opinions shared are that of the author.
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