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

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