Dispatches from Benin #5: If it were only for this one

It is very early morning and I am in Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, instead of Brussels as I was originally booked. Instead of returning to Montreal, I am heading to Los Angeles.

I had actually cancelled my mission to the Africa Mercy over the Christmas holidays when my father’s serious illness got worse. Another surgeon volunteered to replace me, but had to back out due to personal circumstances. By then, I had already received a list of patients and the need was evident. I made the difficult decision of heading to Africa despite my father’s illness, and putting everything in the Lord’s hands.

On January 17, 10 days after my arrival on the Ship, I decided to leave late the following day and fly straight to Los Angeles, where my father had just been admitted to hospital. To fulfill our commitment to patients, the Africa Mercy operating room and nursing crew again went to work, re-arranging the admission and operating room schedules to allow me to complete the mission. That meant long operating days with anesthesia and nursing staff working way past regular hours, skipping their meals, and putting their personal needs aside. We succeeded. Two hours before leaving the Ship last night, we had completed all the operations on our list, with the exception of two patients, who had relatively simple problems, rescheduled for a general surgeon in April.  There is a time for everything under heaven, and this was the time to leave the Ship.

One of those patients we managed to treat was Bea, the little girl with a massive teratoma on her back since birth, whom we had postponed last week due to malaria. Just since my arrival, part of the tumor had become necrotic or dead, resulting in an unmistakable stench.  Bea’s suffering and the thought that a parent could see their child suffer to this extent and stand helpless for so long brought me nearly to tears each time I saw the child and her mother.

Finally, the day before my departure, we took Bea to the operating room. After 7 hours of difficult surgery, the monster she carried on her back for 18 months was removed. The tumor weighed 2.3 kg, ¼ of the child’s total weight. In the recovery room, I saw the first smile on her mother’s face. The day after surgery, I visited her three times. She looked fantastic. I am still sad that I have to leave her so early after surgery, but I am comforted by the fact that Yasmine is staying behind for two more days. In addition, I will stay in touch with the nurses and physicians on the Ship, whose expertise and dedication is unparalleled.

Each time I travel to Africa, I operate on a large number of patients with diverse problems. But each time, there is one patient who leaves me with the feeling that the trip would have been worth it, if he or she were the only patient I came for. This time was no exception. We operated on more than 25 patients, most of them with difficult problems. But Bea was the one. If it were only for this one, the trip would have still been worth it. 

Dr. Sherif Emil is a pediatric surgeon and Director of the Division of Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery at the Montreal Children's Hospital. Over the next 2 weeks, he will be part of the volunteer crew of the Africa Mercy, currently docked in Cotonou, Benin. The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship dedicated to bringing hope and healing to tens of thousands of the world's impoverished populations.  

Read more:

Dispatches from Benin #1: Coming Home to a New Country

Dispatches from Benin #2: The Price of Neglect 

Dispatches from Benin #3: Teamwork

Dispatches from Benin #4: Make Good Decisions