Beautiful Inside and Out

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“She’s very beautiful.”

This phrase was one that Theresa would often hear as she and Elisabeth walked around their community. With a sweet smile and kind heart, Elisabeth’s beauty could be seen both inside and out.

When she was 6 years old, those kind words became judgmental whispers as onlookers became distracted by the tumor growing on the left side of her jaw.

“Mom, people were bothering me,” was a phrase Theresa got used to hearing her daughter say when returning home from school.

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The tumor wasn’t causing Elisabeth physical pain — but it made her feel uncomfortable with her appearance and how others were treating her as a result. She was also growing increasingly uncertain about her future.

For Theresa, seeing her daughter unhappy was deeply disconcerting. It was also frustrating because she had done all that she could to help — years ago, at the first sign of the tumor.

“I noticed a small lump on her face in August 2019 — a very small one,” Theresa explained. By October of that year, Theresa found a doctor to operate on Elisabeth. Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful. A second opinion correctly diagnosed the condition, but the doctors could not treat it because of a lack of necessary surgical equipment.

“I was so concerned about her condition,” Theresa said. “I did not know what to do.”

Theresa knew that Elisabeth’s best opportunity would be a successful surgery. But because the resources they had access to were so limited, she feared it would be impossible to find help again. Then she heard about Mercy Ships.

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Theresa first discovered Mercy Ships through Facebook, where she saw photos of other patients with much more dramatic conditions receiving surgery to remove their burdens. Seeing hope on the horizon after years of worrying for her daughter’s health, Theresa and Elisabeth quickly headed to the Global Mercy.

“These tumors [like the one Elisabeth endured] come from the tissue that creates the enamel in the teeth,” explained Mercy Ships International Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Shrime, the surgeon who performed Elisabeth’s operation. “It’s a benign tumor, which, to us, sometimes sounds like it’s no big deal.” 

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Although not cancerous, such tumors can eventually become life-threatening if left untreated. Like an iceberg, only the tip is visible from the outside.

“They start to impinge on your ability to eat, and then as they grow even bigger, even your ability to speak and breathe.”

Thankfully, Elisabeth was able to find help on board the hospital ship. After the life-changing operation to remove the tumor, she spent weeks on board recovering, her bandages limiting the way she could speak and eat.

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“The first couple of days for her were quite rough with that,” volunteer pediatric ward nurse Briannie Falconer shared. “But I will never forget her determination and the smile that she gave you — this half-little smile as best as she could when she managed to swallow.”

Despite the difficult recovery, Elisabeth was strong — her mother cheering her on the whole way.

“It was so lovely to see how her mom was able to advocate for her — be her biggest supporter,” Briannie said. “Her mom would just smile and hold her hand, and then Elisabeth was like, ‘Okay, we can do this.’”

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Theresa’s support and Elisabeth’s commitment paid off, and soon, the two were heading down the gangway, ready to return home to their family.

“This journey — from surgery to the day we got to discharge her — for this fun-loving, super happy girl was something incredible to be a part of,” Briannie shared.

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Because of access to surgery, Elisabeth’s future is no longer a question for the young girl. Instead, she can hold her head up high as she once again hears the words: “She just looks so beautiful.”