Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Screening Day: What Hope Looks Like

5:30am.  The alarm goes off and jostles me awake in the pitch blackness.  Rain drizzles outside.  Breakfast started at 5:00am today.  I stumble to the dining room for a bowl of porridge (um, oatmeal, I mean).  Already we have had crew posted through the night around the Palais du Peuple, the People's Palace.  Yesterday we showed up at 2:00pm to set up the stations, walk through the building, and prepare for the big day.  As commonly happens in Africa, things didn't go quite as expected. 

We weren't able to utilize the whole building yet.  A wedding and concert were scheduled Sunday night at the venue, after we were promised it in entirety from 2:00pm on.  The man with the keys for the room where our tables and chairs are being stored doesn't show up.  So we return, late in the evening, with headlamps and torches (sorry, flashlights) to move chairs, tables and hang maps.    Lord, what are you doing?  Will the patients come?  Did word get out adequately?  Will the rains keep people away?  Will safety prevail?  How will we look back on this day?

Prayers are going up worldwide.  By the thousands.  By the tens of thousands.  The network of people lifting up this event to the Lord looks like an AT&T worldwide coverage ad.

We caravan in the dark through the city.  Land Rover after Land Rover.  If they didn't know we were here yet, they do now.

The line - it's like a congo line.  People running, hobbling, shuffing but just can't catch up to its end.  From 200 standing in line at 4:59am to 2000 in a matter of minutes.  They are showing up by the carload.

Are they just curious?  Have they heard that miracle workers are here?  Will they be looking for asthma, arthritis and cures for genetic defects?  For some, yes. 

But, oh!  The large numbers of facial tumors!  They keep coming!

This is what hope looks like. 
The fear -  of seeing these faces that have been stretched beyond recognition by forces beyond their control - this fear, is gone.  Now my face lights up with joy as I see these precious ones who have lived in desperation for years, ashamed and devastated by their own appearance.  And they come, afraid to set their hopes too high, convinced that they are beyond help. 

I make eye contact, finding the eye that has the best visibility - this can be the trickiest part.  I smile from the depth of my heart.  A smile that says, "You are welcome here! You are not forgotten!  God has not given up on you.  He sees!  We are SO glad to see you!"

First by a trickle and soon a swiftly flowing river of patients make their way through the maze of stations we have.

4300 people have come through the iron gates onto the front lawn of the People's Palace.  Nurses evaluate each and every person who has chosen to wait hours in first the drizzle, then the clouded humidity, and finally the sun.  Over 500 people are screened by our eye team outside and determined that we could potentially help them further. 

Those with other surgical issues we could potentially treat are escorted inside to begin the collection process on their information.  Each type of condition is brought to see doctors, surgeons and nurses to determine the next step: schedule a surgery, xray, CT scan, waitlist or if we are unable to help.   Escorts continue to guide the nearly 850 patients (plus their loved ones) through the three stories of stations.

Finally they reach the ground floor (Ground Zero) and they are nearing the end of their day with us.  I await at the Card Issuing Station.  And we see them all: Orthopedic patients: little ones with feet seemingly attached upside down, babies with Kermit the Frog legs whose knees look like they are reversed as they touch their chests effortlessly, twelve-year olds that measure three feet tall with legs bowed almost in a complete circle.  Babies, children and teens with cleft lips and palates - their beautiful smiles of joy stretching even wider than our lips allow.  Patients who had surgery on one of the previous Mercy Ships, the Anastasis, in 1998 to repair a condition and now have returned for their follow up surgeries.  They have waited 14 years for our return!  Sierra Leonean patients have crossed the border with their paperwork that states they will need a second surgery and even though that date is November or next January, they come expectantly, knowing the schedule is limited.  VVF ladies have found there way here, with a big "YES!" written on their paperwork from our nurses.  The crook of a burnt arm, the taut marbled skin of a burned cheek and eyelid, both young and old have suffered at the hands of an open flame. The embarrassed faces, the shame that has veiled them vanishes as I stretch out my hand with a "Bon Soir, comment ca va?"  To be looked in the eye and treated as a valued equal, to know that there is a chance that help has arrived for them.  This gives them a tangible hope.

They leave with a plastic card: PATIENT.  They each have a name, a number, and the next step.  For some it's another screening day (on a smaller scale, with a specific surgeon who will identify his/her own patients), for others it's being on a waitlist and they are told to keep their cell phones turned on.  And for others they have an appointment on the ship - a Scan.  An Xray.  An admission.

These are the days when we see that for hope to be credible in the future means that we have to be tangible in the present (US Ambassador Robert Seiple).

This is a day when you can taste the hope. 

These are the days I live for.

Sidenote:  These are the only photos that have been made available to us so far from the screening day.  Please stay tuned- I will do another post with the best photos our communications department took when they are available. 


  1. I love what you said about seeing them. Seeing them makes me feel sad, but you have seen what the BEFORE and AFTER are and you are excited. You know they can be helped.
    That is SO awesome!

  2. Really beautiful Tiffany! You make me homesick for the ship and I wish I could have been there. Thanks for your eloquence. Ann Secord

  3. Great post Tiffany! I really enjoyed reading it. I look forward to reading your blog as I am back at home in Canada