Earlier this year, a man trembled up our gangway in desperate need of medical attention. The hardworking volunteer crew onboard the Africa Mercy went straight to work to help him – and it didn’t take long to realize that Sambany was changing our lives while we were changing his.
Around 36 years ago, a tumor began to consume Sambany’s life. In time, it became a monstrous burden, weighing 7.46 kg (16.45 lbs) – equivalent to two heads. After nearly three decades as a maxillofacial surgeon, Dr. Gary Parker, Chief Medical Officer, said, “It’s one of the biggest tumors of this type that I’ve seen.”
The tumor caused unrelenting discomfort. Sometimes it felt “hot like fire.” Sambany said, “I cannot sleep at night, and even during the day. It heated me up. When walking, it’s too heavy. I have to hold it.”
It was also an emotional burden. Family and friends rejected him, mocked him, laughed at him, shunned him. Some thought his condition was contagious. Harsh words were flung at him: “Why are you still alive? No one can help!”
Hopelessness defined Sambany’s life. The search for help required traveling hundreds of kilometers and included ten hospitals (only three of which had surgeons) and a witch doctor…with no success. Sambany could not afford any other option. His despair reached new depths. “I was waiting to die. I could not do anything. Every day, I was just waiting to die,” he said.
So, Sambany’s world shrank to the size of his house, his only place of safety and peace.
Eventually, he became so weak that his life became a monotonous cycle of waking, sleeping eating. He felt useless, and it was hard to watch his family laboring in the rice fields while he wasted away. They were poor, and money spent on trying to help him was money unavailable for food.
Sambany’s main companion was the radio. One day he heard an announcement that resurrected hope: a hospital ship that could treat tumors for free was coming to Madagascar. In spite of his weakness, Sambany told his family, “Die or survive, I want to go!”
It was a journey that only a desperate man would attempt. The closest road was several days away; the ship was hundreds of kilometers away. Sambany struggled to walk around his house. How could he survive such a trip? But his family recognized his desperation and determination. They sold a rice field to pay for him to travel. Five people took turns carrying him on their backs for two days. Then Sambany endured a painful six-hour taxi ride…but he made it.
Due to multiple health concerns, Sambany’s surgery would be extremely high-risk. For almost two weeks, he rested as the medical team determined the best course of action.
Finally, with one word, Sambany’s entire world changed. After a lifetime of hearing, “No, no, no,” the medical team said yes to performing the difficult surgery. Sambany was well aware of the risks. “I know without surgery I will die. I know I might die in surgery, but I already feel dead inside from the way I’m treated,” he said.
The operation took more than 12 hours, and over twice of his body’s volume of blood was lost and replaced. Our crew, our living blood bank, literally poured life into Sambany. The blood of seventeen people from six nations now runs through his veins.
“Oftentimes, in operations, you have high-stress moments where you’re in the middle of something – where, in that moment, if something goes wrong, you could lose the patient from a severe hemorrhage or something,” Dr. Gary said. “With Sambany, it was pretty much high pressure the whole twelve hours of the surgery.”
But soon enough, Sambany was free from the burden that had weighed him down for nearly two-thirds of his life. When he looked in a hand-held mirror and saw himself for the first time without his tumor, he said, “I like it. I am happy.” Later, he added, “I am free from my disease. I’ve got a new face. I am saved!”
Together, we had fought for his life, and by the grace of God, we had won.
“I think that every human being has the right to look human. To be treated as human. To have a place at the table of the human race,” Dr. Gary said. “And when you have been deprived that seat, and it’s offered to you again . . . to be able to re-enter the human race and to look like everyone else . . . that’s a fantastic thing.”