By Molly Gacetta, BSN, RN, PCCN
I first met Benjamine as she was being rolled into the ward after surgery, both arms outstretched in splints, dressings around her neck, arms and right leg. She looked small, quiet and vulnerable. As I smiled and held her hand, her calm, trusting eyes met mine. Not a word was said, and words were not needed — I was already attached.
Benjamine was badly burned when her clothes caught fire at age 6. For six years, she lived life with scars adhering her arms against her torso, elbows permanently bent and chin adhered to her chest as if glued there, and teeth growing outward so she could barely speak. Despite her disfigurements, she had a smile that started in her eyes and shone through her face, so bright that the whole room grew warmer and happier because of it. Now, being rolled onto the ward, Benjamine was beginning her road to recovery, free of the burden of the disfiguring scars that dictated her life.
Free surgeries, revived hope
Growing up in a developing country like Congo, there is less of a chance for surviving a burn injury like Benjamine’s. Her survival is unusual in itself. Access to good healthcare is difficult in Congo, as the nearest hospital is often too far away and the care is often unaffordable. Even if the injured person can reach a hospital, the families of the poor don’t have money to pay for care. Patients and their families must purchase their equipment, medications and IV fluids, and they must deliver them to the hospital. And the system is often corrupt, with workers requiring bribes to provide medical care. Many people seek care elsewhere — from traditional healers, for example, which may result in infections or worsening contractures. Untreated or improperly treated burn injuries often result in skin contractures that restrict normal free range of motion.
The good news for people like Benjamine is that Mercy Ships can bring the solution they have always hoped for. Mercy Ships provides free surgeries to the forgotten poor in Africa. All crew members are volunteers, paying their way to provide medical care to those in developing nations who would not receive it otherwise. Volunteers have a unique opportunity to travel to Third World countries and provide First World healthcare free of charge.
We see so many patients with scars covering large portions of their bodies. When they come to the ship, they often hide and try to cover these burn contracture scars with a blanket; they are ashamed. The scars are disfiguring, they limit movement, and they prevent a normal lifestyle. The scar is the enemy. It may be the reason why they can’t walk normally, eat without drooling, or hold a pen properly to write their name.
One of my roles in Congo was serving as a member of the dressings team, providing sterile dressing changes to all of the plastic surgery patients. This quote from Chris Cleave’s book “Little Bee” strikes a chord with me: “On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
On the hospital ship the Africa Mercy, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, engineers, cooks and the entire crew share love with people who may not have experienced it in years. We look people in the eye, many of whom have diverted their gazes out of shame for years. We see physical transformations, but the most amazing transformation isn’t just in the large facial tumor removed, sight restored, contracted joint released or bowed legs made straight. It’s in their spirits. It’s in their smiles and their hugs and their laughter. We see a blanket of shame lifted and a newfound confidence and joy restored. And the love we share with them is returned tenfold to us with each hug and kiss on the cheek and high five. It’s about seeing the person for who they are, not for their ailment. It’s about loving them regardless and letting them know we see them.
People often ask me why I would pay to volunteer, why I would leave family and friends and comforts of home behind to work abroad. It’s the belief that people, regardless of where they are born, should have the fundamental right to good healthcare. It’s following God’s calling to share his love to those who may not have ever experienced it before. It’s the beauty of witnessing lives like Benjamine’s transformed — the healing of bodies and spirits — and the ways I have learned and grown in the process.
Benjamine, like so many of our patients, is no longer a slave to her scars. She transformed from a silent yet strong little girl stuck in bed and reliant on others to help her with each small task, to an outgoing, talkative young woman, full of confidence and joy. She learned to freely lift her arms, reaching joyfully to the skies or stretching out in front of her to tickle unsuspecting nurses in her path. She was able to speak clearly, her chin free from her chest, her smile extended even further than before.
Benjamine has new scars from her surgeries, but these scars have a whole new meaning. They tell a story of where she has been, of what she has endured and how she has persevered. They represent her strength and courage. They are beautiful.
Molly Gacetta, BSN, RN, PCCN, has been volunteering with Mercy Ships since 2012. Her first trip was to Togo in 2012 for four and a half months. She spent 3 and a half months in Congo in 2014 and eight months in Madagascar from 2014-2015. She recently returned to Madagascar for five more months of service. Photo at top, of Gacetta and Benjamine, courtesy of Mercy Ships/Suzanne Veltjens.
More from Mercy Ships
Globally, 5 billion people have no access to safe surgery, according to a Mercy Ships sposkesperson. In many countries, nine out of 10 people have no access to basic surgical care.
Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free lifesaving surgeries for people where medical care is nearly non-existent. Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than $1 billion, treating more than 2.5 million direct beneficiaries.
Each year Mercy Ships has more than 1,600 professionals volunteers from more than 40 nations, including nurses, surgeons, dentists, anesthetists, pharmacists, and healthcare trainers who donate their time and skills to the effort. Mercy Ships seeks to transform individuals and serve nations one at a time.
To learn about serving with Mercy Ships, visit Volunteer.MercyShips.org.
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