A 25-year-old woman who had lived with a facial tumor for almost half her life has had successful transformational surgery on a charity’s floating hospital ship.
Diarra’s parents faced crippling costs from her teenage years when her toothache led to a growth which continued to expand until it was nearly half the size of her head.
She said: “It just kept getting bigger.”
Her parents struggled to find the help she needed at hospitals in their home of Senegal and this was made harder by their limited funds as small-scale farmers.
Medical costs loomed larger, forcing them to choose between caring for their other children or seeking healing for their daughter until they were eventually forced to stop looking.
The tumor continued to grow as Diarra did and it restricted her life.
She said: “It affects me a lot. There are many activities I would like to do but I could not.”
Years later, Diarra met and married her husband. The couple could not afford the surgery she needed and she became resigned to the fact that she would never find help.
“I had almost given up,” she said, believing she would always have it.
The birth of her daughter was a life-long dream but amid the elation she feared she would not be healthy enough to enjoy all her milestone moments.
The desire to get better became overwhelming and urgent. “I have to be healthy to take care of her,” she recalled she told herself.
In 2021, Diarra heard through the radio that Mercy Ships, a faith-based organization operating a fleet of hospital ships, would be visiting Dakar.
Diarra said: “The announcement said they would give free surgeries for people with tumors like me.”
Determined, she successfully attended pre-operative appointments with Mercy Ships, which revealed that Diarra had a rare, non-cancerous tumor that began in the cells forming the protective enamel lining on her teeth.
Without surgical intervention, such tumors continue to grow and could block the airways, preventing breathing and eating. Dr. Josh Wiedermann, a Mercy Ships volunteer surgeon from the United States, explained that in many higher-income countries, such cases could be caught in the early stages during routine dental examinations.
Because Diarra had not been able to access timely and affordable surgical care, what started as a toothache had escalated into a significant tumor. Following the appointment, she was approved for surgery on the Africa Mercy.
Diarra and her husband lived far from the ship and traveling for surgery meant leaving her daughter, aged three, for the first time. But the thought of finally receiving help fueled her seven-hour journey.
“I had prayed for so long; we had looked everywhere. We are so happy!” Diarra’s relief poured out of her as she waited to board the hospital ship.
Due to the fact the tumor was rooted in her jaw, the first extensive surgery in 2022 onboard the Africa Mercy hospital ship involved part of her jawbone being removed and a metal plate being inserted to create the profile of the jawbone.
While on board, she had regularly called home to her husband, Boye, who was overjoyed.
He said: “You cannot imagine how happy I am. We have lost so much money to that disease, and we never got surgery,” he said.
Her reunion with her daughter after the first surgery was something incredibly special.
Diarra said: “She couldn’t stop touching my face!”
Her second surgery in April 2023, aged 26, on board Mercy Ships’ newest hospital ship the Global Mercy worked to replace the metal with her own bone.
It was far less daunting for Diarra, who said: “My family couldn’t believe that I got not one but two surgeries. They were more than happy, they were so happy that they cried.”
Before her first surgery, Diarra had taken to isolation, hoping to shield herself from the curious stares.
She recalled: “I wanted to own a business, but I couldn’t go to the market because they just looked.”
No longer burdened by the tumor, she plans to embark upon a journey of entrepreneurship.
Most importantly, she says she can look ahead to a healthy future where she can watch her daughter grow up.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Mercy Ships.