mercy christmas. meet harris.
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 his 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 with 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 smile and he waved as we walked away. It was exactly what hope looked like and it made me cry.
* * *
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 their prayers.
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 moments 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.
click here for video of joseph's homecoming
click here for video of harris
photos of harris
more patient stories