Minette excitedly sat in the chair, patiently waiting as the hairstylist worked her magic. She could hardly believe this moment had arrived – the moment when someone wasn’t afraid to touch her and wanted to style her hair. An hour later she emerged with her braids perfectly in place, ready for a celebratory party that she has desired for a long time … for 16 years. Today, Minette felt as special as the fairy tale princess Cinderella. No, Minette was not heading to a ball to meet her prince, but her biggest wish had already come true …

Minette wore over-sized t-shirts to cover her neurofibroma, and we never saw her smile before her surgery.

When Minette was five years old, her father, Robert, was heartbroken to discover that his little girl showed signs of a condition called neurofibroma – tumors that grow on nerves throughout the body. In a developing country like Madagascar, little is known about neurofibromas or how to treat them. But Robert knew this condition all too well – he was also afflicted with the disease, which first appeared when he too was only five.

“It’s something from life, something God let happen to us,” he said. “No one else in our family has it.”

Sometimes neurofibromas are small, and affected individuals can hide their condition. However, the normal process is that one tumor grows much larger than all the others. Robert’s large neurofibroma was on his right wrist. On first glance, it looked like he’s holding a sack of groceries.

Minette’s large neurofibroma grew in a much more delicate place – from the top of her neck at the base of her skull where the hairline ends. It looked like part of her hair. It caused Minette nothing but heartache. People were afraid to touch her. She endured the ridicule of being singled out by other children. Neighbors said the family was cursed.

It took a few days for Minette to get up and move again, but with the help of Ward Nurse Agnes Pen she flashed her now trademark smile – a smile that never stops.

And it kept getting worse. By the time Minette was 21, the large growth had reached her waist and weighed 4.3 kilograms (approximately 9 pounds). It was difficult to walk, stand or sit. To cover her deformity, Minette wore over-sized t-shirts. She was withdrawn and unsmiling.

“People wouldn’t treat me as a human being,” she said.

Minette wished for a cure, but in the real world, fairy godmothers don’t exist. Or do they? Minette’s fairy godmother came in the unusual form of a 16,500-ton hospital ship, the Africa Mercy – a ship dedicated to offering free specialized surgeries to the poorest of the poor.

Robert and Minette first heard about Mercy Ships on the radio. A hospital ship providing free surgeries sounded too good to be true. Villagers warned them that the foreigners on the ship would steal their organs and conduct experiments on them.

But they were desperate for a cure. So, father and daughter ignored the warnings and made the three-hour journey to the ship in a cramped bus.

Now the large mass is gone from her life – and so are the oversized t-shirts! Minette updated her wardrobe to wear the dresses she always wanted to wear but never could.

Upon arriving, Minette was evaluated by volunteer surgeons and staff for surgery. Everyone could see her her misery – she didn’t smile, never made eye contact, and wore a constant grimace. Volunteer surgeon Dr. Tertius Venter and his surgical team had a simple goal – to remove as much of Minette’s neurofibroma as possible without reducing her range of motion or damaging nerves.

On the morning of her surgery, nurses helped Minette prepare for surgery by scrubbing down her large neurofibroma. Two nurses worked together to lift the growth that Minette had carried alone for so many years. The surgical team worked over three hours and removed the huge tumor … an immediate physical transformation!

Minette’s wish to be loved was even deeper than her wish for her tumor to be removed. However, years of rejection made it difficult for her to accept that love. Over the next few days, the all-volunteer crew gave Minette blood transfusions, and prayed and cared for her in a way she’d never before experienced. Every day the nurses, chaplains, and crew loved on Minette …  and her emotional and spiritual healing slowly blossomed in the warmth of acceptance and love.

And then the transformational moment came … the moment when Minette flashed a smile … the moment when Minette’s “real” personality emerged. Beauty and joy radiated from her face … and she’s still smiling.

“It was just really beautiful to see someone go from very little confidence to knowing that she could be confident and knowing that she was loved,” shared Stacia Julian, ward nurse and team leader for the plastics program. “There is so much light in her eyes now and true joy coming from her.”

Now the large mass is gone from her life – and so are the oversized t-shirts! Minette updated her wardrobe to wear the dresses she always wanted to wear but never could.

As she continued her recovery at the Mercy Ships land-based HOPE Center, Minette was able to make friends for the first time. She and a patient named Sarah formed a special bond over board games, painted nails and fashion!

Nine months after her transformational surgery, Minette is still smiling. When asked what had changed the most in her life, she thought about it for a moment and then answered,

“I can now get someone to do my hair. Before people were afraid, and now it’s no problem.”

Then it was time for father and daughter to return home … both very grateful for their restorative surgeries.



Minette commemorated her transformation with the long-anticipated trip to the hairdresser and a party to celebrate her “happily ever after” story … her version of Cinderella’s fairy tale.  And, who knows? There may be a wonderful Prince Charming in her future who will be captivated by her beautiful smile.