The translator who kept hope alive
It seems like Eric Diatta’s phone never stops ringing, and for good measure. On the other end of the line, it could be any of the hundreds of Mercy Ships patients who have come to rely on him.
Eric is from the southern part of Senegal and speaks five languages. In 2019, he met Mercy Ships Hospital Chaplaincy Program Developer Steve Schwind.
“He asked me about Senegalese culture,” Eric said. “What we wear, what we love to eat, how we speak to people.”
Steve was on the country engagement team for Mercy Ships, visiting Senegal ahead of the upcoming field service. He suggested that Eric apply to work with Mercy Ships as part of the local team.
Eric told Steve he would think about it but never applied. Regardless, Steve refused to give up. He called Eric on the day applications were due — two hours before the deadline.
“[After getting his call] I jumped from my chair, grabbed my laptop, and applied,” Eric said, laughing at the memory.
Eric was quickly accepted as a translator on the patient selection team. He and his new colleagues traveled all over Senegal, identifying candidates for surgery. But then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
A Heartbreaking Change of Plans
The ship would be forced to leave Senegal for the safety of both crew and patients, and Eric had the heartbreaking task of bringing the news to those awaiting surgery. Some of the patients he reached out to were only days away from their surgery dates, no longer able to receive operations that would have changed their lives. Eric said he felt the pain of those patients in his own heart.
Though Eric had to share heartbreaking news, he held out hope that healing would return one day.
There were 1,104 patients with canceled surgeries. So, Eric made a schedule and began calling every single patient once a month, making over 30 calls every day. Soon, they started calling him back!
“My phone kept ringing day and night,” he said. “They just called, asking, ‘Diatta, are you sure the ship will be coming back?’ I said, ‘Yes. Mercy Ships, one of their core values is to be a person of integrity. So, if they told you ‘We will come back,’ they will.’”
When the ship finally returned in February 2022, Eric was standing on the dock.
“My phone was exploding, ‘Hey Diatta, I saw the ship on TV. Is it real? The ship is here?’” Eric recalled that joyful moment. “I said, ‘Yes, the ship is here! And now you guys will be able to receive your life-changing surgery that you have been waiting for so long.’”
After two years and thousands of phone calls, Eric was finally able to deliver some good news.
“You cannot imagine the joy that I am feeling inside me, not only for me but for the patients who have been waiting,” he said. “Finally, God made it possible for the ship to be able to come back.”
“Dr.” Diatta Continues to Serve
Now Eric is back on the patient selection team, going out into every part of Senegal to find new patients and reconnect with those who already have appointments.
“Seeing Eric interact with patients and partners fills my heart,” said Global Patient Selection Manager Ria Bos. “Eric shows Jesus’ love for people through his presence and action.”
Another teammate, Regional Director Kirstie Randall, said there’s no underestimating how Eric kept hope alive.
“Everywhere we go, we hear, ‘Mr. Diatta’ or even Dr. Diatta,’” she said. “It speaks of the trust he has built amongst the patients who have been so patiently waiting for their hope to be realized through surgery.”
Eric can’t seem to shake that honorary medical title, which he thinks came about because of the medical scrubs he wears in his role.
“‘Dr. Diatta, Dr. Diatta,’” he said, laughing. “I say, ‘No, please, I’m not a doctor, I’m just a facilitator.’”
But “Dr.” Diatta’s “patients” don’t care. And they’ve promoted him to a position that’s even more sacred.
“All these people are my friends now,” Eric said. “They are my family, I can say. Some of them are telling me… ‘You are part of us now.’”
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