Vernel smiling with cleft lip before surgery

meet Vernel

Country: Congo, Africa
Age: 8
Surgery: Maxillofacial

It’s impossible to be angry with Vernel because he’s just too cute—and now he knows it!

Vernel is a wily eight-year-old who is probably up to something that he’ll most likely get away with. Why will he get away with it? Because when he looks up at you, with that lovable, mischievous grin, he mesmerizes you with his sweetness. Your only conscious thought is about how adorable he is. Were you about to reprimand him? You can’t remember.

I call this “The Vernel Effect.”

Vernel smiling with cleft lip before surgery
volunteer doctors operating on Vernel

Vernel’s story begins in a fishing village eight hours from Congo’s port city of Pointe Noire. The cleft on the right side of his upper lip revealed his pink gums and front teeth as it stretched toward his nostril. Vernel was bullied for looking different, his dad says. The other children in their village teased him to the point that he would come home crying. Who could possibly have the heart to make Vernel cry?

Vernel’s father brought him to the Africa Mercy, a specialized surgical hospital ship staffed by volunteers from over 38 nations. In an environment where people with cleft lips are embraced, Vernel quickly came into his own. He never had to worry about being teased; the crew loved on Vernel from the moment he stepped into the Admissions Tent. We made him balloons, we let him play with the Djembe drums, and we discovered that he is a clown in front of the camera. On this ship in Africa, Vernel finally found his audience: 350 people who have eyes to see beyond his deformity. By the time surgeons repaired Vernel’s cleft lip, he’d forgotten he had it.

But there is one thing you can’t let yourself forget about Vernel—he is a ninja when it comes to tickling.

That mischievous smile on Vernel’s face is there for a reason. First, he will curl up in your arms or give you a hug or a big fat kiss. Then, in accordance with The Vernel Effect, you will let your guard down. And that’s when he’ll strike.

Think you’re not ticklish? Think again. Vernel has no mercy- especially if you have recently tickled him. This is a eight-year-old with an appetite for vengeance.

Vernel with bandages resting after surgery
Vernel happy and hugging a family member after surgery

But Vernel couldn’t stay on the ship and tickle us forever. Eventually, he had to return home.

Vernel’s village had no idea what they were in for. When it was time for Vernel to be discharged, he called his grandmother to tell her he was coming home. “I’m a handsome boy now,” he said. Vernel was patched up from the inside out.

Vernel was not the first (or the last) patient to undergo a transformation here. But history will remember the 350 people onboard the Africa Mercy in Congo as the enablers of The Vernel Effect. It was because of them he realized his charm, and through them he developed his knack for launching tickle attacks. Consider yourself warned.