Saturday, July 31, 2010

Infant On Board

Imagine being born into this world struggling to breathe. It’s been nice and warm inside your mother’s stomach for nine wonderful months and all of a sudden you are thrust into bright lights gasping for air.

Born in Kpalime, Togo at the American Baptist World Evangelist Hospital (ABWE), that was exactly Kossi’s experience. There are many countries across the world where Kossi could have been born, but God chose a primitive African setting to be his home.

Not many Togolese babies are lucky enough to be born in hospitals. It was a blessing that Akoua, Kossi’s mother, was able to give birth to him under the care of a doctor. Akoua struggled during labor and required a c-section. The moment Kossi was brought into this world, there were complications.

There was a cystic lesion on the topside of his tongue that made it twice the size of a normal newborn baby’s tongue. He was unable to get proper nutrition because he was couldn’t suck to breastfeed. If the lesion was not removed Kossi could starve to death. Dr. Russ Ebersole of the ABWE Hospital knew that Kossi needed treatment beyond what he could provide. Dr. Russ picked up the phone and called his friends at Mercy Ships.

Rachel Dix, Mercy Ships Screening Coordinator, picked up the phone. She was precisely the Mercy Ships crew member he needed to speak to! Dr. Russ explained Kossi’s situation to Rachel. She checked with the ward supervisor and asked the surgeons if they could squeeze a newborn baby into their very tight schedule. Dr. Leo Cheng, a maxillo-facial surgeon on the ship from Cambridge, England, agreed to do the surgery. Rachel called Dr. Russ and gave him the go-ahead. Just a few hours after entering this world Kossi and his parents received approval to come to Lomé and be admitted onto the ward of the Africa Mercy for surgery.

Overwhelmed and still recovering from a C-section, Akoua tried to soak in the news. In a span of a few hours the doctor had told her that her newborn needed immediate surgery. In order to get the care he needed, she and her husband, Kodjo, would have to travel three hours to the capital city of Lome to get to the hospital. A hospital which, oddly, was on a ship. That was a lot of information to absorb.

One blessing was that Kodjo was a taxi driver. As soon as Akoua felt strong enough to travel, they loaded up the taxi with the precious new life God had given them, and headed south on the open road.

A few hours later the couple pulled their car onto the dock of the Africa Mercy. They’d never seen anything like it in their lives.

It was so tall. And bright white. We’ve never even been to a port,” said Kodjo, “We were told the ship was leaving soon, so we arrived as quickly as we could.”

Rachel was notified of their arrival and walked down the gangway to meet the adorable bundle of joy. She greeted the parents, and then took Kossi in her arms. She walked them onto the ship and then down into the Hospital.

Kossi was welcomed and immediately adored by every single nurse on the ship. It was so exciting to have a newborn on the ward. Kossi and his parents settled into in the ward--Akoua and Kossi snuggled up in one bed and dad just next to them.

Surgery day was upon them and the nervousness on Akoua’s face was evident. It is not common that a five-day-old baby has surgery, especially on a ship! But she knew it was necessary for his survival. And she trusted Mercy Ships—they had been so kind to her since she arrived. “Regardless,” she said just before sending her precious baby into the operating room, “This is our last child.” Insinuating that the stress of Kossi’s medical condition was enough for them to handle.

Kossi was carried into the operating room, and Dr. Leo performed the surgery. Everything went great and there were no complications. A few hours later precious little Kossi was back in the ward snuggling with his mother. The only trace of surgery was the handful of blue stitches dotting his flat tongue.

Kossi and his mother stayed in the ward for a week to ensure a complete recovery. On his rounds, Dr. Leo checked in with the infant. Dr. Leo explained Kossi’s situation, “The threat of this lesion was very serious. Because was tongue convex [and not concave like a normal tongue] he couldn’t breast feed at all. That was the first problem. The second problem was that if the lesion grew larger, it could shut off his airway.”

During recovery, the nurses taught Akoua a new method to feed Kossi. Used by babies with cleft lip and/or palate, the cup method is a way to ensure the formula gets into the infant’s body without him/her spitting up the food. By the end of the stay on the ward, Kossi was drinking from a small cup, and even taking a bottle.

The time came for Kossi and his parents to return to their home near Kpalime. Dr. Russ at the American Baptist World Evangelist Hospital had requested that they check in with him when they return from the ship. The collaboration between ABWE and Mercy Ships is a wonderful relationship that has saved many lives. Five-day-old Kossi will not remember his time on Mercy Ships, but his parents will never forget their live-saving visit to the big white Hospital ship.


I’m in Africa.  (thank you Claire for stating the obvious)
I’m thousands of miles away from my family.
My best friend back home just got engaged (who happens to be my sister).
I have a wonderful boyfriend in Texas.
I have a Masters Degree.
There are many well-paying jobs that I am qualified for.
I interned last summer at a large company and was able to shop all I wanted off of my lovely paycheck.

I live among 350 people in a very small space.
The food gets old.
My bed is uncomfortable.
It’s nearly impossible to have time to yourself on this ship.
I depend on donations to be able to go out and experience the city.
I can’t walk 500 yards from this ship alone because it is not safe.

For the first time in my life, I wake up every morning excited to go to work. I LOVE my job. Love it. Everything about it. It’s a dream.

Does this all measure up? How is it possible that when I lived right down the street from my family and had a decent job, I found myself completely unsatisfied? Some would say that life post-college is about the following things: finding a career. Finding a husband. Hanging out with friends who’s company you truly enjoy.  Possibly going back to school, furthering your career.
Bottom Line: Discovering who you are, what you want, and how to get it.

What it should not be about: Who has the largest engagement ring. Who went on the coolest vacation. Who is the most successful. How big your house is. Peoples lives should not be measured by the kind of car your drive or the carats in your diamond. (facebook feeds this competition, and I think a facebook boycott is coming soon)

I will never forget the moment I finally admitted to myself, out loud, that I wanted to work for Mercy Ships and come to Africa. It was Christmas day. I was in Santa Fe with my mother and good friends Claire and Jeremy. We were a few glasses of wine in…and discussing career options. Claire said, “You should be a teacher! You are so creative and caring.” And I looked at her and said, You know what I really want to do? I want to work for Mercy Ships. My mom piped up—You do??
Yes, I do.
Well, where did this come from??
I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking about it a lot.
Well…then you should do it!
Sure, why not???
That was all the support I needed.

Now, not everyone is as crazy as me to up and move to Africa for three months, but one thing I’ve learned over here is that it is possible to be happy at your job. Really happy. Excited about the challenges of the day. Hell, some people would be miserable living on this ship! This would not be the right place for them. But you’ve got to find that one thing that does it for you. That clicks. That when the alarm goes off in the morning at some ungodly hour, 9 times out of 10 you say “Today’s gonna be a good day.”

I write and run all over this ship all day long. Down to post ops, out to the dock,  back into the office, to starbucks for coffee, then back to the ward. I drag Tom to take photos of my patients who I’m following. But when you put it in perspective, if just one of my stories has made in impact on someone who simply mentions Mercy Ships to a friend over a lunch or a cup of coffee, then I feel like I’ve made a difference. Because the more people who know about Mercy Ships and the wonderful things they are doing, the more likely Mercy Ships will expand and thrive in the years to come.

No, living in Africa on a ship is not for everyone. But, it took me coming all the way over here and working for free to find peace and happiness when the alarm goes off at 7:00am.

And because I have found that peace, it has been well worth the sacrifice of leaving the ones I love and facing an adventure on my own. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Noelie's survival

Noelie is not your average 22 –year-old. She has struggled much of her life. Many people go through hardships, especially in Western Africa, but Noelie has endured difficulties in many ways. This is not the first time Mercy Ships has been called upon to lend a hand in her life.

Noelie grew up in Lomé, Togo, a city on the coast of Western Africa. When she was 15, Noelie was experiencing a growth inside her face, near her left eye. At that time, Mercy Ships was in Togo and Noelie had surgery on the Anastasis. Mercy Ships surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could in a process called de-bulking.

With a regular life restored, Noelie went back to living as usual. She met a man, married him and moved to Benin. She gave birth to two children. Around the time she was pregnant with her second child, the tumor on her face returned. This time, it grew back larger than before. At this point, her husband left her. He saw no need for a wife who was not “normal.” Noelie had no money to go to the doctor, and she had no idea if Mercy Ships would ever come to Benin or Togo.

When the tumor returned the second time, it was much more severe than the first occurrence. The growth was concentrated inside her cheek, jaw, and eye. It began pushing her left eye up, and out. Noelie strained to see out of this eye. Along with the strained vision, her appearance was distorted; one eye much higher than the other.

Five years after her first surgery, and feeling alone and dejected, Noelie moved back to Lomé with her children. That is when her life in hiding began.

“I decided not to go out. I would stay in the house all day. People would ask me why I look that way. ‘What is wrong with you?’ They would say. It hurt me inside.” At this point Noelie was barely past her teenage years with no husband and 2 children. She had hit the lowest point of her life at the tender age of twenty.

She couldn’t wallow in her sorrow forever. Though she was upset and depressed, her children depended on her. She needed desperately needed a change. Her sister stepped in and was able to lift Noelie’s spirits.

“My sister told me: ‘You cannot stay in here like this. You are a human being. You need to be interacting with other people. This is no way to live.’ So, after that, I decided she was right. Living inside is no way to go about life.”

Noelie decided that the best way to get out of the house was to get a job. She had a skill that needed to be put to use. She always loved fixing hair, so she went to school and became a hairdresser. Eventually, she began working as the second hair dresser in a Coiffure (hair salon) in Lomé.

Work helped distract her from the tumor growing inside her face. But it was never too far out of her mind. Noelie lay in bed at night wondering if she would ever have surgery again to fix her eye. Work was helping her gain confidence to be among other people, she still dreamed of a normal face.

Would the Mercy Ship ever return, she wondered?

Then, one day, Noelie was at work when she heard the news she had been waiting to hear for several years. An announcement on the radio revealed that Mercy Ships was coming back to Togo! Noelie was overwhelmed with joy. She walked home from work that day and couldn’t stop smiling.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, maybe Mercy Ships would be able to help me the way they did before,” Noelie said.

Noelie attended screening when the time came and was approved for surgery. It had been seven years since her previous surgery, and she was returning to the big white hospital ship once again: with the hope of being healed. This ship was larger than before. It was a new ship. A nurse explained to her that during the time since the last visit to Togo, Mercy Ships had purchased a larger ship—the Africa Mercy.

Once on board, Dr. Leo Cheng, maxillo facial surgeon, took a look at Noelie.

“I was mainly concerned with her eye. The tumor was pushing her eye up and putting a lot of pressure on it. If that part of the tumor was not removed, she could go blind,” said Dr. Leo.

Noelie went into surgery for de-bulking, the same process as before. Dr. Leo removed the majority of the tumor. Noelie was insistent she keep her teeth and her mouth intact. If Dr. Leo attempted to remove the entire tumor, he would have to take out her whole jaw and do an entire facial re-construction requiring multiple surgeries to re-shape her face. This may be a viable option down the road, but de-bulking is the best choice given her age.

During Noelie’s surgery, I removed the top half of the upper jawbone, right hand side of the cheekbone and put a titanium plate in her face that is now supporting her eye,” Dr. Leo said.

Noelie came out of surgery and was taken to the recovery room. For the first few days after surgery, her face was swollen and tracked with stitches. But her spirits were high. She interacted with the nurses and other patients on the ward. Though her faced was scarred, her eyes were finally evening out.

When she looked in the mirror, she saw a glimpse of her former self.

“I’m so amazed at what the doctors can do here. More than any other patient, I thank Mercy Ships so much—they have helped me not once, but twice,” Noelie says.

Dr. Leo reflects on her transformation, “You cannot do this in any hospitals in West Africa. There are many very capable surgeons here. But they do not have the equipment of the nursing staff to take care of patients after a major surgery. This ship is truly amazing in what we can do.”

Noelie, pre surgery, on the Anastasis in 2003.
Noelie after surgery in 2003.

Pre-op photo of her second surgery in 2010.

Noelie and Joanne
Noelie after surgery--Final Post Op day

Thursday, July 22, 2010

And the Blind Shall See

Catherine Schwebel with Komlavi in his shop. Komilavi is sportin' his shades after his surgrey.

Inside Komlavi's Market shop---check out all the great stuff he sells/makes!

God watches over those of us who are believers. God was working overtime when it came to Lomé resident and market vendor, Komlavi Djikpo.

Catherine and Marty Schwebel, Chaplains aboard the Africa Mercy, were browsing through an artisan market with their sons when they met a very nice man who sold wooden sculptures. They liked him, and his crafts, so much that they referred all of their Mercy Ships friends to him for purchases! They took his card, and learned his name was Komlavi.

A few days later a few Mercy Ships crew members were out browsing the same artisan market when they began talking to one of the shop owners. He mentioned that he couldn’t see well out of his right eye. Alana Abernathy, a member of the eye team, took a look at Komlavi’s eye.

Alana recalls, “I took him over into the shade where I could see into his pupil better. Sure enough, I saw one of those dense, white cataracts. I was so happy!”

The Sculptor at work.

Seeing the cataract made Alana smile because she knew this was a problem that Mercy Ships could definitely solve. Alana wrote down the location of the eye care screening, and told Komlavi to come to the screening soon because criteria for cataract surgery were changing: he would only make the cut if he made it in the next couple of days.

A few days later Marty & Catherine were exercising in the port in front of the ship. They saw a man walking up to the ship and they recognized him.

“Marty, I think that is the man from the market!” Catherine said. They approached the man, and saw that it was Komlavi. They read the note written by Alana. They realized that he has encountered other Mercy Ship crew members, and it looked like we could help him. Marty and Catherine jumped in a Mercy Ships vehicle and drove Komlavi to the eye screening site and by the end of the day he was cleared for surgery.

Had it not been for 2 separate encounters with Komlavi, he may have never made it to screening. It was fate that put Marty & Catherine on the dock when Komlavi arrived.

“The Schwebels really connected the dots for this man,” said Marketing Director Mila Hightower. “They ensured that he was where he needed to be in order to get the proper screening. God definitely had a hand in this.”

Marty Schwebel comments, “We prayed for him and said, Lord, please make it be cataracts and let Dr. Strauss be able to do surgery on him.” And sure enough, Dr. Strauss was able to help Komlavi.

Now, after surgery, Komlavi is back in his market shop selling intricately carved wood sculptures and trinkets. Surgery is done but he must come back for one last procedure.

Six weeks after his cataract surgery, Komlavi returned to the Hospitality Center for a check-up and to receive his YAG laser procedure. This was a quick process and was performed by Mercy Ships Eye Specialist, Clyde Houston. The YAG laser was a painless shot of light sent into Komlavi’s eye. It is necessary to prevent blurriness or cloudy vision from returning after cataracts surgery.

Komlavi at the Hospitality Center getting his checkup.

Receiving the YAG procedure.

With Dr. Clyde Houston just after the YAG eye procedure.

“Komlavi was one of the best patients I did all day. He was extremely still. Many patients move or blink a lot. Komlavi did great,” said Clyde.

Jut after he received his YAG procedure it was time for the Celebration of Sight. The Celebration of Sight is a ceremony in which all of the cataract patients of Mercy Ships come together in one place, and celebrate their successful surgeries. Before, they all struggled to see clearly. Now, their sight was perfectly clear. Komlavi was no exception.

The ceremony began and there was singing and dancing. Komlavi sat quietly in the second row, assessing the situation. His eyes moved quickly observing the others who began clapping and dancing around him. Many patients felt the rhythm in their bodies, and got out of their seats to dance around. Komlavi was cautious at first. Then, he got up out of his seat, and joined the line of dancing men and women.

He was able to capture a few joyful moments with a small point and shoot camera. The smiles that surrounded him were contagious.

Then, a few patients stood up and to give their testimony. Komlavi, moved by the celebration and his wonderful experience with Mercy Ships, stood in front of the crowd, and told his story:

“My name is Komlavi Djikpo. I am a sculptor and a carpenter. A wood artist. I was having this eye problem for a long time, but I was unable to go to the hospital.
One day, I met some white people coming to my shop. They told me about mercy ships because I told them I was having an eye problem. They promised to help me. And they have helped me.
I came to the ship for the surgery and I have never gone into an operating room in my life. That day I was so scared. And I prayed that God would help me go through the process. I did not even know that they had done the surgery already. I did not feel anything. I just woke up and I found myself on the bed.
The next day when they took the patch off I was so happy because I could see clearly. And I’m very glad for what God has done for me and I’m praying that God helps anyone else who is willing to have such an opportunity. May God bless everybody.”

Komlavi’s testimony encouraged many people. The crowd raised their hands in praise, and clapped in amazement after he told his story.

Marty Schwebel was able to witness Komlavi’s testimony at the Celebration of Sight. It was like seeing this man’s story full-circle. At their initial meeting, Marty simply admired Komlavi’s fine craftsmanship. Now, Marty stood at the Celebration of Sight, witnessing Komlavi’s testimony. Komlavi can now see crystal clear out of both eyes, and Marty helped make that day happen.

“It was so nice seeing Komlavi sit amongst all those who were celebrating their restored vision. Komlavi is a very stoic, serious man but it was great to see him break into a smile as he thanked Mercy Ships and the Lord Jesus for healing him,” Marty said.

After riveting testimonies from three other cataracts patients, the Celebration of Sight came to a close. The patients in attendance thanked the Mercy Ships crew profusely for their patience, their attentiveness, and their caring.

Komlavi was so appreciative of Marty and Catherine, and Alana’s help to get him to Mercy Ships. Because of their patience, their attentiveness, and their caring, Komlavi now had crystal clear vision. His sculpting work for his shop will now greatly improve. He is excited about the opportunity ahead.

“Now that I am healed, and I can see out of my right eye, I think things will get better. Maybe, even, I can learn to make new things to sell in my shop. Thank you Mercy Ships.”

Interviewing Komlavi..."So, tell me how you felt when you came to the ship for surgery?"

He is the sweetest man on earth! I love him.

Catherine and Marty survey my interviewing skills.

Outside with Komlavi---and other eye patients in the background.

Celebration of Sight!

One of the Day Workers in charge of the Ceremony. Thanking the Lord for blessing all these wonderful people.

I gave Komlavi my camera to document the party.

Elaine and I enjoying ourselves :) Komlavi took more pictures of us than the crowd!

Komlavi giving his testamony.

Me telling Komlavi to take pics of other people!! (not me haha), he just took pics of Tom instead!

The back of the Eye Team's scrubs.

Photographs mainly by the lovely TOM BRADLEY.....
intwertwined with a few from Catherine Schwebel and Komlavi (via my camera).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Street Photos: Lomé


Fan Milk...Africa's version of the "ice cream man"

Veggie and Fruit stand


Shirts (mainly soccer jerseys) for sale

Shops on the side of the road

Yams...they dont look very appetizing. 

Bottles of gasoline, umbrellas each covering different "shops"

Tires, wheels, rims...

Those bottles are gasoline---ready to sell right off the street.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pics of baby Kossi

Kossi with Moma, Akoua
Mom and dad give 5-day-old Kossi a little smooch!

CT scan for baby Kossi!! Ulrich does the work :)
Need to secure that little head :)
In he goes!
Ali, Nurse extraordinaire, and Kossi

Getting measured!
Tiny, tiny...