Saturday, December 24

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
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Thursday, December 1

meet joseph jones.

12.1.05. from liberia, west africa.

Joseph Jones is 32 years old. His has not been an easy life.

When he was a small boy, a benign tumor began growing on his neck. Over the years, a small lump grew into an oscar-worthy special effect, and played lead villain for the better part of his Joseph's life. When he turned 20 near the start of Liberia's civil war, it took a temporary back seat as rebel soldiers stormed into his sleepy village killing his parents and friends. Joseph narrowly escaped into the dense rainforest where he waited out the attack. Returning home to the stench of death and tragedy, he wept freely. For many reasons.

When Joseph speaks, he begins with a shudder as his facial muscles tense, his eyes squint and his lips tremble. After a moment, sound emerges - halted and pushed.

I first spoke to him outside the ship's gangway a few weeks ago. We sat on a wooden bench together and talked, only 2 years separating us in age, only a few inches in height. Yet I was born in one of the world's richest nations, he in a war-torn country with no electricity or running water - where one doctor serves 50,000 people. Our worlds met as the vast ocean between New York and Liberia delivered a fully-equipped hospital ship and western surgeons to his country's port.

It's often hard for me to explain to friends and family back in Manhattan just how poor Liberians are. About six hours from the broken-down capital, Monrovia, Joseph lives in a village called Korkordavidtown. He sells palm oil for a living. This consists of about seven days work collecting the palm, then two or three days work turning it into oil. After ten days, he can produce about five gallons of oil. This he sells for $4. So Joseph makes about 40 cents a day, or $144 a year. He uses the money to buy soap, clothes and food.

Joseph said his tumor made people afraid of him. Or, if they weren't afraid, they just laughed at him. He knew for years the only place he could get help was a hospital, but even his wildest dreams didn't allow money for an operation. So Joseph prayed. For about 20 years.

Now I'm a New Yorker, and about as cynical as they come. More cynical, actually. The conversation went like this.

"Cmon Joseph. What do you mean you prayed?? How did you pray??? What did you pray???"

"I prayed that God would bring the hospital to me. Every night."


And he told everyone in his village that it would happen. He told them he was certain one day, he would somehow reach a hospital and have the work done. So last year, when Joseph heard on the radio that a hospital ship was coming for the first time to Liberia full of surgeons who gave free operations, he wasn't surprised. Nor was he surprised that the ship specialized in the removal of benign tumors.


I can only marvel at that kind of faith. At that kind of endurance. It seems far removed from the reality I have allowed myself. Could I suffer for even 5 years with an enormous tumor? Absorb scorn and hatred for something that wasn't my fault? Would I pray for deliverance to an unseen God for 20 years? And continue to believe?

Each miracle I see here brings me a little closer.

Volunteering with Mercy Ships for 13 months now, I've taken over 60,000 photographs. I've seen thousands of people with unthinkable defomities, desperate to see our doctors, clinging to a small hope for salvation. I know what poverty really looks like. I also know what can be done about it. I've photographed more than 20 operations on the ship, and seen the lives of the poor transformed through the sacrifices of real life Good Samaritans and through the funding that allows their work.

But more importantly, as I photograph almost every patient we treat, I've had the honor of learning from these truly remarkable people. Joseph just added his name to a lengthening list of heroes that clung to hope and faith, refusing to give up the fight for life and survival. I have so much to learn from them.

Joseph went home on Wednesday. The 550 gram tumor joined the ship's medical waste, and he seemed at ease. We were able to help him with a little money for a dowry so he could marry his fiancee. And although the operation didn't fix his broken speech, he struggled and grinned as he planned what he'd say to all those who had doubted him.

"I will be feeling happy. I will tell them all God has answered my prayer."

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