Her aunt, Fatama, has always been amazed by 3 year old Umu’s effortless ability to make friends, regardless of where she goes. “She’s a very brave girl,” Fatama shared. “She’s intelligent. She’s a fast learner.”
Although this contagious joy is Umu’s trademark now, it wasn’t always this way. Her birth came with an unexpected twist as she entered the world with a benign tumor growing from the side of her face and neck. This was a shock to her mother, Yei, who had no reason to expect anything other than a healthy baby girl. Seeing her firstborn with the growth was utterly devastating.
“I was afraid to see the tumor on her face,” Yei remembered about the day she gave birth and saw Umu for the first time. “No one would be happy to see that.”
It didn’t take long for the painful reality of Umu’s condition to set in. While Yei was pregnant, a family member had requested that the baby be named after her, hoping to finally have a namesake of her own. That all changed when the family member saw Umu. She took back her request, telling Yei she no longer wanted Umu as her namesake.
“It hurt me a lot,” shared Yei.
It wasn’t just family or friends that commented on Umu’s tumor. Strangers reacted too.
“When I took Umu for walks, some children would run away from her because they were afraid of the tumor,” remembered Yei. “People would ask so many questions about what was wrong with Umu. I didn’t have answers, because I didn’t know either.”
Umu’s family tried all different kinds of remedies. They sampled traditional herbal medicines. They fasted for seven days and nights. They looked into surgical options, but there wasn’t a single maxillofacial surgeon in their country of Sierra Leone.
At her young age, Umu remained blissfully unaware of the glances and stares of others, so her confidence and playful nature were unaffected. But she couldn’t escape the physical burden of her tumor. As Umu grew, so did her tumor. While her condition wasn’t yet life-threatening, the tumor was growing dangerously close to her airway. “She was at very high risk of suffocation,” shared Dr. Gary Parker, volunteer Mercy Ships surgeon.
Without help, her family feared what would happen to the little girl. But then hope arrived. Through the help of a network of family, friends, and even strangers, Umu heard about Mercy Ships.
Accompanied by her mother and aunt, Umu traveled to the Global Mercy, where she was told she could receive free surgery to remove her tumor. According to Ria Bos, Mercy Ships Director of Patient Selection, there was no time to waste when it came to Umu’s surgery. They decided to operate on Umu quickly, believing that waiting any longer would have led to “potential airway risk developing.”
After trying and failing to receive treatment so many times before, the news brought a fresh wave of joy to Umu’s family.
“When they told me, I was happy because I know she’s a beautiful girl and I know at the time when the operation is going to be done, she is going to be even more beautiful. It’s going to be a successful story,” shared her aunt Fatama, growing teary-eyed at the memory.
“It’s going to be a good feeling explaining how far we’ve come.”
Getting an appointment for surgery caused a huge exhale of relief – but the road to recovery was still long. First, Umu had to go through the operation itself. Watching her daughter get wheeled away to the operating room was a terrifying moment for Yei.
“I feared Umu would die,” she said. The uncertainty was crippling, but the possibility of a healthy future kept Yei’s hopes alive. “When Umu came back and the surgery was successful, I cried tears of joy. I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”
After Umu had recovered on board, the family returned to their home and started their new normal. Without the burden of her tumor, Umu has found newfound freedom as she plays and explores without judgment. Able to eat and drink more easily than before, her health has skyrocketed as she grows taller and stronger day by day. And soon, Umu will begin school just like other children her age.
“Life has been amazing since the operation was done,” shared Fatama. “Now, when I take a walk with her, all the people would be like, ‘Oh, she is beautiful.’”
With fear over her health put to rest, the family has found peace for the first time in years. Now, they can look ahead to the future with renewed hope, knowing that Umu can become whoever she wants to be.
Fatama dreams she’ll become a nurse and help other kids in the future. Yei wants her to keep studying and not be afraid to share her story with others. No matter what she grows up to do, Fatama says, “I think the future holds something amazing for Umu.”