it's too heavy. It hurts. I want them to take it out. All in the
ear, all in the mouth, you see... all the teeth that were here,
all moved." "I am feeling it. It's really hurting. I can feel the
joint of the bone. I'm tired with it now."
it weighed six pounds, four ounces.
the weight of a newborn. the weight of a laptop.
a 3 liter bottle of coke. two leatherbound volumes of complete Shakespeare.
the tumor is out of Harris's face.
For more than a decade, there seemed no hope
for Harris. A monstrous benign tumor filled his mouth, and was slowly
suffocating him. And he couldn't have suffered in a worse place.
Harri s's home, Liberia, is perhaps the world's poorest country.
It is a land ruined by civil war with no public electricity, running
water, sewage or mail.
It's a land where maxillo-facial surgery is
but a dream.
But somewhere and somehow, perhaps one evening,
gliding in his canoe on a dark ocean, Harris found and clung to
hope. And he waited for more than 10 years, living in a crude shack
by the sea, struggling to survive, fishing to find his next meal.
Harris had an encounter with God, and began
to pray earnestly and often for a miracle. He said he realized God
had many children, and was very busy tending to them all. But he
knew he would be delivered one day.
Yesterday, more than 13 years since his tumor
began growing, I saw what that miracle looked like in an operating
room. A messy and bloody miracle on a ship in West Africa. A miracle
that involved two volunteer surgeons and three anesthetists working
for four hours to remove the tumor that had wrecked Harris's face.
And then worked for another three to put him back together again.
But just finding Harris was a miracle in itself.
It was around midday in Buchanan, more than four hours from the
ship, when I stopped in a rice store with Todd, a cameraman and
friend. We were about to start the last leg of a long journey into
the bush to take a patient called Joseph home. As we bought rice
for his family and village, I noticed a man in the store make a
gesture to his face that seemed familiar. As if to describe a tumor.
I felt strangely compelled to break into the conversation and interrupt.
The man told me about Harris.
Less than an hour later, we found Harris by
the ocean, walking towards us on the road. We jumped out of the
Land Rover and told him that we lived on a ship that specialized
in the removal of tumors. We said we would come for him in the morning.
Harris tells me he was skeptical. He had been
lied to many times in the past. People had taken his picture, always
taken his picture. Run it in the paper. People had made empty promises
to help him yet none had returned to help.
The next morning Harris came with us to the
Mercy Ship in Monrovia. His father accompanied us on a long, joyful
ride over awful roads towards new life.
It took Harris two weeks to get strong enough
for surgery - two weeks of blood transfusions and iron supplements
and solid meals. He spent Christmas with us and I watched him shyly
tear through gift-wrapping to get to a radio, pocketknife and model
car. And a Santa hat.
My DV camera was an ever-present part of our
relationship. I think Todd and I shot six or seven hours of footage
before even realizing what we were documenting. Instinctively capturing
his journey. Documenting this extraordinary life.
I've gotten to know Harris pretty well over
the past two weeks. He is the constant jester, his eyes mischievously
dancing and scheming his next prank. The pus that dripped from his
tumor and accompanying towel became almost invisible to me, and
I grew to understand his muffled speech.
I learned much about what his life was like
living with a tumor. About war, rebel soldiers, and plenty about
fishing. Storms and sharks and navigation by mountains and stars.
And of his conversations with God, of a deep faith that moved things.
I have never met anyone like him. What he
has suffered is unthinkable to me. Bouts of bleeding that caused
him to lose up to a liter of blood at a time. Headaches that lasted
for weeks. An constant oppressive weight that pulled his head down
Yet he fought. He hoped. He remained faithful
to his belief in an unseen God.
And there is more fight ahead. His miracle
is messy and involves a journey of recovery. The tumor badly stretched
the skin on the left side of his face and absorbed three quarters
of his teeth. The skin could not all be trimmed, because it will
remember its old face and slowly begin to shrink. Harris will spend
two months with us in recovery before his next surgery, where Dr.
Gary Parker will take a piece of bone from hip and rib and attach
the bits to the titanium plate that is now his lower jaw. He must
learn how to speak again and to eat.
He's out of the gate fast. Last night we marveled
as, through the morphine, he held a mirror in his left hand, and
felt the contour of his chin and cheek with his right. He smiled
Harris asked if we could save his tumor for
"I want to punch it. I want to punch
it like this," he demonstrated, violently smacking the air with
his fist. We did the next best thi ng for him.
When it had been removed from his face last
night, placed in a plastic bag for medical waste and then a brown
paper one, we followed it to the incinerator... I rolled camera
as Todd pretended to punch the bag with his fist.
"This is for you Harris. This is for
you," he shouted over the din of the incinerator before tossing
the bag into the flames.
* * *
An hour ago on the ward, I wat ched through
tears as Harris and his father were reunited after two weeks. Harris
grinned when he saw his father, a smile previously made impossible
by the tumor, and one I'll look forward to getting used to. His
father knelt beside his bed with tears in his eyes and looked up
at the ceiling.
"I am looking for God. I am looking
for God," he said.
read part 3
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