The Starfish & a New Pair of Lips.


Photo:  © Carys Parker

Most everybody has heard one telling or another of what's known as the starfish story. But I have my own version:  

This past December we spent some time at the beach with friends. And one afternoon as Carys and I walked along the shoreline, we came upon a stretch of sand littered with starfish. The tide had receded leaving them high and dry and as the story goes, if you leave starfish to bake in the sun they won't survive.

So, Carys began to throw the starfish back into the sea one, by one, by one.  And in the original story at some point, an old man, who had lived long and gathered much wisdom would amble by, and upon observing her efforts, say something like this:  "You know, there's really no point to what you are doing. No matter how many starfish you return to the sea, and no matter how long you're willing to persevere, you will never get to them all. Don't waste your time, because in the end it just won't matter."

And without missing a beat, as she bent to pick up one more starfish, Carys would say to the wise old man, "Well sir, with all due respect, it matters to this one."

Parker S Starfish.jpg

I don't know about you, but at one time or another, I've identified with each character in this story. 

Sometimes I'm Carys--the one rescuing the starfish. 

Many more times though, I find I'm the starfish needing to be rescued.

But I'd be less than honest, if I didn't admit that there are times when I'm more like the cynical old man--kind of burned out on the compassion business.

Because, there's no end to the relentless, crushing need in nations where the majority survive on less than $2 per day. There's no distance between "us" and "them." The poor have a face; they have a name. But no matter how much we do for Mamadou, or give to Fatou, or help Aminata, it's only and always just one drop in an ocean of need.

And sometimes, I just want to turn away and pretend I didn't see. 

Togo Screening

                                       Africa Mercy Surgical Selection Day | Lomé, Togo

                                             © Jacques-Jean Tiziou for Mercy Ships

Then along comes British anaesthetist Dr. Keith Thomson--my role model in moving beyond the limits of what I think I'm able to do, or what the confines of my job require that I do. Being around him has opened up a whole new potential world of what I could do -- maybe, even what I was created to do.  

You see, for Dr. Keith, anesthesia is his day job. He gets involved with all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. It might be the Beninoise patient whose cleft lip we repaired, but whose parents couldn't pay his school-fees, or the Togolaise taxi driver who was looking for a micro loan to start up a small business. And then there was the Liberian church pastor who needed a toilet for his church building -- and subsequently named the new toilet after Keith! Once it was a woman in Sierra Leone who would have died in childbirth because she lacked the $100 needed for a c-section...

He calls them his Starfish.


  Dr. Keith Thomson                                               

©  Mercy Ships International

In 2008 the Africa Mercy was back in post-war Liberia for the second time. After lunch on Easter Sunday, Dr. Keith asked if I would accompany him to visit a patient at JFK Hospital in Monrovia. A few days earlier he had observed surgery on Mary, a newborn who had a life threatening condition. As he watched, he noticed that the local staff member was struggling to intubate and Mary was becoming increasingly blue and her heartbeat was slowing. Dr. Keith offered to help. He quickly intubated Mary and then handed her back to the anaesthetic nurse and the surgical team continued.  The operation was successful and we were on our way to JFK because Dr. Keith, who was now referring to Mary as "his baby," wanted to help her mom with the hospital bill. 


                                             Photo:  © Keith Thomson

As we we chatted with Mary's mom, Dr. Keith noticed a little girl with a bandaged mouth a few beds away and before going off to investigate told me that he had heard about her on the ship. A crewmember named Betty had been trying to get her seen on board, but our surgical lists were so full that there didn't seem to be any chance of that.

Blessing at JFK

                                              Photo:  © Keith Thomson

      Eight year old Blessing was perfectly healthy just weeks before.

Blessing 1

Then one day on her way home from school, she tripped and fell into a ditch.  She cut her knee and it became seriously infected -- which led to sepsis, and this created the environment for a disease called noma to take hold. 

The result was devastating.

Feb 11#5

                                               Photo:  © Betty Mann

Feb 24#1


                                            Photo:  © Betty Mann

And what happened next is too awful to show you. Known locally as the "melting disease," over the space of a few weeks' time, Blessing's lips and the columella of her nose necrosed and fell away leaving a raw open gash across her face.

Dr. Keith introduced himself to Blessing's mom, Martha, and asked permission to take some photos to bring back to the ship. He then turned and said,

"Susan, Blessing is your starfish. Your husband and his team can change the course of this little girl's life, but there's no space on the surgical list.  You be her advocate."

Back at the ship, we showed the photos to Gary -- and indeed he did say, "No."  He was very sorry and wished he could help, but there was simply no wiggle room in the schedule. He and the hospital team were maxed out. 

But at JFK hospital Blessing's mom, Martha, was praying.

And somehow, I don't know how, a little crack in the schedule opened up and 12 days later, Blessing was transferred to the Africa Mercy in a Liberian ambulance. A coincidence?  Perhaps. But I tend to agree with Sir Winston Temple who liked to say, "Coincidences seem to happen much more often when I pray."

Over the next nine months, Blessing had a series of four surgeries to create a new pair of lips, using a flap from her neck. A skin graft was also placed on her wounded knee.



                 Carys was Blessing's faithful companion through the months of surgery and recovery



                                                           Blessing, just before we sailed from Liberia.  

                                                        ©  Mercy Ships International

After the ship sailed, we kept in touch with Martha and Blessing and two years later they traveled to the ship in Sierra Leone to have further revision of her new lips. And let's just say that it's a long, slow process to make lips look like lips--when all there is to work with is a flap from the neck!  

By now Blessing's had another problem.  Her leg had significantly contracted, causing her great difficulty in walking. Unfortunately the hoped for orthopedic consult was not possible as we had no orthopedic surgeons on board at the time. 


                   Blessing and her mom, Martha -- who never stopped praying and never gave up.      

                                   Freetown, Sierra Leone ©  Mercy Ships International

Martha continued to call and write over the next year and a half, reminding me that Blessing's crippled leg was a huge problem, "Please don't forget about us," she urged. 

This past November, a way was found to once again squeeze Blessing into our surgical program here in Guinea, and Blessing and Martha excitedly made their way to the ship from Liberia. 

And, finally, after four years of walking back and forth to school dragging her crippled leg, Blessing had her knee joint straightened and reinforced with a surgical plate by Mercy Ships' orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Frank.


                                     Africa Mercy Hospital Ward | Conakry, Guinea.            

                                           Photo: © Debra Bell for Mercy Ships

Martha and Blessing were with us for three months in Guinea as the recovery process and physical therapy are quite lengthy for this procedure.  Gary took the opportunity to have another go at her lips, and here she is looking beautiful with her leg straight, ready to return home. 

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                         Carys who is off to university next Fall says goodbye to her childhood friend. 

Blessing Guinea 2013

                                           Photo: © Debra Bell for Mercy Ships     

So, the next time the cynical old man offers you his sage advice,  "You know, there's really no point to what you are doing. No matter how many starfish you return to the sea, and no matter how long you're willing to persevere, you will never get to them all. Don't waste your time, because in the end it just won't matter."

You just tell him, "Well sir, with all due respect, it matters to this one."


© Susan Parker 2016  All rights reserved.