Unlocking Her Voice

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For the last 20 years, Ramatulai’s voice had been locked inside. Thanks to a rare condition known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) ankylosis, she could not completely open her mouth. 

“She cannot yawn. She cannot shout. She cannot chew,” explained Dr. Leo Cheng, the volunteer Mercy Ships maxillofacial surgeon. 

Ramatulai’s mother, Haja, sought medicine to help heal her baby after it became evident that she couldn’t open her jaw properly. But the medicine she could find was ineffective, and the problem only worsened as she grew into childhood. 

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“Even to eat, she does not know how to open her mouth,” Haja shared. “When cleaning her teeth, the toothbrush will not go inside her mouth.” 

Due to her condition, the growth of her lower jaw and chin was stunted, resulting in a severe overbite, which worsened over time. Not only did the condition present Ramatulai with physical challenges like eating, which left the young girl malnourished, but it also kept her feeling isolated and outcast for looking different. 

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Ramatulai resigned to struggling for the rest of her life, a reality that broke her and her mother’s heart. 

“I normally lose hope whenever I think about my condition,” she said. “I sometimes feel ashamed among people.” 

But in 2023, that shame began to lift when the Global Mercy sailed to Sierra Leone. Ramatulai arrived on board full of optimistic hope.   

“I was very happy and overjoyed,” she said. “I know I will be beautiful after the surgery.” 

Not only had Ramatulai seen pictures of other patients treated by Mercy Ships, but she also personally knew a woman who had recovered from the same condition that she had.  

“We’ve seen so many people whose surgeries were done successfully by Mercy Ships,” she shared. 

Finally, it was Ramatulai’s turn to become one of them — and just in time. 

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“This surgery is not just a transforming surgery,” Dr. Cheng shared. “It could be lifesaving surgery.”   

Unable to open her mouth, Ramatulai’s airway was prone to blockage, making her susceptible to choking. Dr. Cheng was excited to imagine the new opportunities Ramatulai would have — to speak confidently and even sing! These newfound capabilities were profound for Ramatulai, but most apparent to others after her six-hour surgery was her new face, completed by a filled-out chin. 

Over the next several weeks, Ramatulai healed from her surgery, resulting in a bubbly and beautiful young woman. 

“After Ramataulai went to her surgery, she just came back a different person,” shared nurse Amanda Harris, who worked with the young girl. “She started talking and telling us about her family and dancing through the wards, and it’s just so sweet. She has a lot of love to give.” 

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Only a few weeks after her life-transforming surgery, Ramatulai headed home, ready to surprise her family. Amanda had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that Ramatulai’s transformation had on her family: “I remember her mom’s face specifically. Shocked, trying to see what’s happening — what’s going on. It was overwhelming for her, and then after she started to hug Ramatulai, she was crying and smiling and so thankful.” 

Finally, after 20 years, Ramatulai’s voice has been fully unlocked for the first time, and her family can share in her joy!