Let me tell
you a Christmas story.
A man sits alone on a long wooden canoe, staring
out into the ocean. He is about to begin his daily fishing trip,
which will begin in the late afternoon and end at dawn the next
morning. He waits for his father to arrive, and like most days,
the two of them will spend the next 16 hours together in silence,
fishing a dark sea. On a good evening, they will catch five or six
fish they might sell for about $1 each - if it is a bad one they
will return with nothing.
The man has terrible posture. He's weighed
down by a huge tumor on the side of his face. It's just smaller
than a basketball, and has been growing for 13 of his 34 years.
A pink and red mass, it spills out of hi s mouth. A dirty brown
towel is draped around his neck. It is a part of him, constantly
in motion, constantly catching the murky pus that drips from his
face. When the man speaks, it is in deeply muffled English or Bassa,
the native dialect for his region of Eastern Liberia.
It is only a few days before Christmas - a
holiday that has brought him little joy for more than a decade.
It was more than 13 years ago that this benign
growth started wi th a toothache. It grew slowly over the years
into a ten-pound monster and forced him into isolation. He is an
elephant man, shocking to behold as he slinks from his canoe to
his home - a crude structure made of twisted scrap metal a few hundred
yards from the shore.
The man's name is Harris. And a ship is about
to change his life.
* * *
Tuesday, I left the Mercy Ship in Monrovia,
Liberia with Todd, a friend and cameraman. We were off to reunite
a patient and friend named Joseph Jones with his village deep in
the jungle. The journey would take about six hours, and after his
life-changing surgery (see
story), we were anxious to see the celebration firsthand.
About four hours into the journey, in a sleepy
town by the sea called Buchanan, we stopped in a small market to
buy two bags of rice for Joseph's family.
And then this thing happened.
As I was waiting to pay, I looked to my right
and saw a man making a familiar gesture. He moved his hand to and
from the right side of his face, describing something. The man spoke
quickly and shook his head. I couldn't understand what he was saying,
yet I felt compelled to walk over and ask him what he was doing.
It turned out he was talking about a man with
a large tumor. He was talking about Harris.
Of all the rice stores in all the towns in
all the world... A boy in the store no older than six said he knew
where I could find the man, and off we went. Harris wasn't at home.
Or at his father's home. But as I drove towards the ocean, there
he was, walking towards me.
I had a magical Christmas story to tell him.
Grabbing his hand, I told him that I lived on a giant hospital ship
in Monrovia. A place where surgeons from the west performed thousands
of free surgeries. I told him that we specialized in the removal
of large benign tumors, tumors even larger than his. And I thought
we could help him. Would he come with me in the morning?
He had been waiting 13 years for this moment.
He had been praying for 13 years. His father stood next to him,
incredulous. Of course he would come. At what time??
We agreed on 9 and Harris threw his hands over
his head. His lips tried to form a beautiful s mile and he waved
as we walked away. It was exactly what hope looked like and it made
* * *
The reunion later that evening in Joseph's
village was glorious. Our friend was literally ambushed - attacked
by jubilant family and villagers, not expecting his return. They
knew Joseph as a man with deformity for more than 20 years and embraced
him, incredulous and joyful. It was a six-hour celebration with
singing, shouting, dancing and palm wine. I accepted a rooster,
plantains and two eggs from villagers on behalf of the ship. The
people of Korkordavidtown made speeches and thanked God for answering
Todd and I spent the evening in Joseph's hut
with a crowing rooster and friendly spiders, and left before the
break of dawn. We reached Harris in good spirits, and he took us
to his canoe - to meet his brother by the sea. We promised to carry
him safely to the ship, and moment s later, we were all packed in
a Land Rover hurtling towards Monrovia.
Todd and I got to know Harris during the long
drive back to the ship. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder blasted
on the Ipod and I almost drove the Rover into a ditch when I heard
Harris chime in on "I Just Called to Say I Love You." He made fun
of my driving as we bounced noisily over potholes and lamented the
state of Liberian roads.
I asked what he hoped for, if we were able
to operate. He said he would be filled with joy. He would be a new
person. He would be free.
I also asked Harris what he wanted for Christmas
and he said he had no expectations. People had never given him gifts.
I pressed him and he told me he hoped for a meal. Or maybe small
money to buy food supplies at the store.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Parker examined
Harris on the ship late yesterday afternoon, and admitted him immediately
to the ship's ward. He will spend Christmas with us and enjoy three
meals and troupes of carolers.
His surgery is scheduled for January 5th, a
surgery Dr. Parker thinks will take about four hours. He has been
given several blood tranfusions after his hemoglobin count was found
to be 4 - a quarter that of a healthy person's. And he told Dr.
Parker of recent bouts of bleeding that caused him to lose up to
a liter of blood. Dr. Parker thinks Harris had only a month or two
to live without surgical intervention.
* * *
I was interrupted writing this letter by a
nurse who brought Harris by my photo office, just down a long corridor
from the ward. I showed him pictures of people we'd helped on the
ship - people with tumors like his. He stared wide-eyed at my Powerbook
screen. Alfred. Beatrice. Patrick. Deborah. Hawa. Friday. Marthaline.
I think I know how his story ends.
read part 2 of the story
here for video of harris | photos
of harris | more