In 2015, in an operating room on board the floating hospital of the Africa Mercy, the course of Vanya’s life changed.
Until then, the 11-year-old had spent her childhood challenged by windswept legs that curved sideways. The condition — often caused by a combination of genetic factors and malnutrition — kept her from walking easily or wearing the skirts and leggings she longed to wear. For Vanya, who dreamed of becoming a dressmaker one day, it felt like she was living her life on the sidelines. She was left sitting and watching as the other children around her played, danced, and ran.
Vanya’s parents felt helpless to change the course of their daughter’s future. In their home country of Madagascar, where most people live below the poverty line, the financial burden of surgery comes with the risk of financial ruin for up to 95% of the population. Moreover, there are currently enormous gaps in the surgical workforce, with only approximately 20 physicians per 100,000 people. Vanya’s parents couldn’t see any feasible options to get Vanya the complex, specialized surgery needed to straighten her legs.
But the arrival of the Mercy Ships’ hospital vessel, the Africa Mercy, meant that safe, free surgery was now within reach!
Pursuing Healing on Board a Hospital Ship
After a successful orthopedic surgery on board the ship in 2015, Vanya began the daunting journey of learning to walk on her newly straightened legs. Much like a young toddler taking their very first steps, the process took time, patience, and strength — and fortunately, Vanya had no shortage of these. With the support of her mother and the volunteer crew on board, Vanya’s persistence carried her through as her legs began to heal.
By her side throughout this journey was the Mercy Ships communications team and their interpreter, Tsoa, a native Malagasy. Tsoa built a bond with Vanya and her mother as he encouraged them through weeks of physiotherapy appointments, cheered Vanya on as she took her first steps, and waved them goodbye when they finally left the ship to return home.
A Special Reunion, Seven Years in the Making
Years have now passed since Vanya’s journey toward healing. In the time since, her improved ability to walk allowed her to return to school, where she loved studying environmental science and learning about the world around her. Now 19 years old, Vanya’s family describes her as shy and sweet. She’s living out her childhood dream of being a seamstress. After receiving a sewing machine and learning to sew by hand, she started off by making dresses for her dolls and has now turned her sewing craft into a business. Life in her family home is warm and supportive, with a father she calls her best friend and a mother whose eyes fill with grateful tears when she talks about Vanya’s life before surgery — and her life today.
Vanya’s lasting memories of her time on board center around the friends she made — like the other children in the wards and the people by her side during the hard moments. Friends like Tsoa. And recently, he had a surprise in store. He was coming to Vanya’s house to reunite with her for the first time in seven years. Although he now lives across the country, he had returned to Antananarivo, Vanya’s home city, on a work trip and couldn’t miss the opportunity to see her again.
Vanya visibly brightened as her old friend walked into the room to surprise her. As the two caught up and swapped memories of her life-changing time on board, she glowed. Before long, Tsoa had all three generations of Vanya’s entire family laughing over an energetic game together.
“We finally met after seven years, and it was really, really wonderful to see her again,” shared Tsoa. “We played games with her family – we were dancing, singing, it was just really fun.”
As the day ended, Tsoa asked Vanya if she had any words she’d like to pass back to the rest of her friends at Mercy Ships. She thought for a moment, smiled, and shared, “Thank you very much for what you’ve done.”
For Vanya, several hours in the operating room for specialized surgery has since opened the door to a life of pursued dreams, greater independence, and enduring friendships. And thankfully, she’s not alone.
In February 2024, Mercy Ships will return to Madagascar to provide hope and healing to many more patients, just like Vanya. From children with orthopedic conditions to people suffering from burn contractures, maxillofacial tumors, cataracts, and many more conditions, Mercy Ships aims to provide a range of safe, free, specialized surgeries over the course of a 10-month field service. There is so much hope and healing still to come.