Sunday, January 8

Harris. Part 2.

becoming harris.

"It's too... 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 sideways.

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 and nodded.

Harris asked if we could save his tumor for him.

"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.


video clips. surgery & recovery

harris. images.

more words. harris part one

more patient stories/photos



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