A newspaper headline in Liberia captured this shocking cry for help from a 23-year-old girl named Fatu. A monstrous growth on her face was slowly suffocating her. According to the newspaper, she experienced difficulty breathing and swallowing, while also battling constant physical pain. And there was also emotional pain. “I’m always sad and lonely because most of my peers and neighbors prefer to keep a distance from me; I feel deserted most of the time,” she lamented.
Fatu was blessed with an uncle who was determined to help her. Fatu had been living with him since her parents died during her teenage years. She and her uncle developed a precious, caring relationship. He would often nudge her into laughter as they played games together. Fatu enjoyed these times, which ignited her vivacious, mischievous, and competitive spirit. The friendship became her rock of hope even when her health deteriorated.
It all began when she went into the village compound to bathe. “Someone threw dirty clothes at me. As I ran away, I tripped, fell down … then my face started to itch,” Fatu recalled. The irritation intensified over the next few days as her face became inflamed.
As the years passed, the swelling increased. Her friends were too ashamed of her appearance to be seen with her. “So many times I was ridiculed by people laughing at me,” she remembered sadly. She could no longer attend school, but she often dreamed of being able to study and have a respected job.
Determinedly, Fatu emerged from her house in disguise, with a scarf covering her head. She accompanied her uncle to sell curtains in the market. She especially loved the blue and white curtains and dreamed of buying them one day for her own home and family.
When the pain became intense, her uncle rushed her to a hospital. The doctors could not help her and sent her home to die. “Only Mercy Ships can help,” they advised. That’s when her uncle came up with a desperate plan. He went to the newspaper to tell Fatu’s story, hoping someone . . . somewhere . . . would help the young woman get to the hospital ship.
Jennifer Ketchum, the wife of a former Mercy Ships captain, read the story which pleaded for donations to send Fatu to the Africa Mercyin Sierra Leone. Immediately, she made arrangements to escort Fatu to the ship.
It was a long journey. Fatu was daunted by the prospect of flying, but she was comforted with Jennifer by her side. “When I came, I was so afraid. I just wanted to go home,” she said, as she remembered being terrified to go aboard the big white hospital ship.
After several days in the hospital, it was time to make the most important decision of her life. Doctors advised that the life-saving operation carried a risk of leaving her face somewhat deformed. However, Mercy Ships had a specialized surgeon whose expertise would minimize facial damage. In a telephone call, Fatu asked her uncle what to do. “Go ahead!” he enthusiastically answered, promising to pray for her.
As hope filled her heart, Fatu said, “I’m feeling happy and welcomed.” During this time, she became friends with Abdel, a local Patient Life Nurse. They enjoyed playing card games. And, as Fatu began to realize that healing was really possible, she began to relax.
Abdel witnessed this transformation, saying, “I smiled broad smiles because, when we played games, she would look at me, smile and laugh.”
After surgery, Fatu made a rapid recovery. Within days, her bandages were removed, and the swelling decreased. She discovered that an inner healing had also occurred. It warmed her heart and liberated her vivacious, humorous personality – as evidenced by her mischievous tricks during card games and her joyful gospel singing in morning worship.
Soon she returned home to her uncle to live her dreams. He promised her that when her face completely healed, he would send her back to school. Her life had changed. Now she greeted each day with a smile.
“I say, God bless the people of Mercy Ships. I have life. People no longer laugh at me. They will be admiring me, and I’ll be dancing,” she said with a smile.
Story by Claire Ross
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by David Peterson, Debra Bell, and Liz Cantu
Thank you for partnering with Sue and me to make this possible for people like Fatu! –Nils