Monday, January 30

harris goes home. (and throws a party)


Harris threw a party on Wednesday night.

It was his first in at least 13 years, and with a little help from an old New-York-City-party-promoter, he killed it. Dinner for 50. Loud music. Two doormen and a crowd outside.

The man who lived for more than a decade on the fringe of society, the man once monstrously deformed and rejected was now the instant and unlikely celebrity. It was truly something to see.

Harris had come home. And everything was different now.

A few hours earlier we stopped for lunch in Buchanan after the long drive from Monrovia. Mercy Ship colleagues Todd and Matt were with me, as was Sam, our Bassa translator. The meal was almost torture for Harris, now only minutes from his home, his father, his neighbors and his canoe. It was the calm before the storm. And looking at Harris across the table, I thought of how in the Bible, a prodigal son came home to a jubilant father who made everyone drop everything and party. He killed the best calf and prepared a feast with dancing and music.

As Harris's father is a fisherman, and lives well below the poverty line, I knew this wouldn't be possible for him.

"Harris, pick any place in town. We're going to throw a party for you," I said, barely able to contain my excitement at the idea. Harris did a double-take, then knowing me well enough by now to know I was serious, grinned and we high fived.

Since the sandwiches we'd ordered hadn't come yet, Harris and I drove off to arrange the evening's festivities at the place he picked, Jah Glory. Outside, I spotted a radio tower and decided we'd crash the United Nations FM station. With Harris in tow. I flashed my press pass at the guards manning the entrance with AK-47's, and we bounded up the steps. I told the station manager Harris's incredible story, and he immediately taped an interview. He had often heard of the man with a tumor by the sea, but had never met him. Harris thrust forward a picture I took of him before surgery, reveling at the man's astonishment.

And then it was time for the homecoming. Back to the restaurant to pick up the sandwiches and the others, we headed towards Harris' shack by the sea. Harris grinned and thrust a hand out of the window as we approached. A throng of about a hundred waited. They greeted us with screams. They cried and praised God. Some simply could not believe that here stood the same man they had known. It was chaos. Harris spent about an hour, greeting them, shaking hands, shyly enjoying the attention.

He told me he wanted to see his canoe, and a shout went up from the crowd. The fisherman was back to fish. We walked the same path to the beach that we had a month earlier, this time trailed by a throng, dancing and shouting.

It was just over a month ago that our worlds collided. After an eavesdropped conversation led me to find Harris by the ocean. A month since the 34-year-old man with a seven-pound tumor in his mouth walked with me up the gangway of a hospital ship towards new life.

It was a magical time for both of us.

* * *
His last days on board the ship were anything but dull. After a dramatic seven-hour surgery, his tumor was thrown with medical waste into the ship's incinerator. And then I watched as Harris began a painful recovery process. Unlike so many others, who tread tentatively with baby steps, Harris leapt foward towards health with a strong will and forced grins.

Food by tube and then to soft diet. Ensure. A blue handheld mirror, the now constant prop, replaced the dirty brown towel that used to catch the steady drain of pus from his mouth. He was learning to put his lips back together. Learning to speak again. And most importantly, learning to laugh.

He was full of zest now, full of fire and always getting in trouble. Urinating into the sea off the back of our 522-foot floating hospital when he thought nobody was watching. Sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom of the ward. Playing practical jokes on patients in nearby beds. But the jester was also a gentleman. I'd catch him cradling a baby in his arms, softly encouraging a patient who'd just had surgery.

And finally, it was time to go home. He'll need to wait two months before his second surgery, a bone graft slated for April 2. Anxious at first, he was bursting at the seams the morning we left.

If anyone deserved a good party, it was Harris.

* * *

We joined the party at Jah Glory around 8:30 p.m - fashionably late. Two policemen worked the door, and I pushed us through a large crowd to reach the door. People from the town's other radio station were there to interview Harris. He had changed into the black Banana Republic mercy shirt I'd given him on the ship, and was moving easily between the room where they would eat and the door.

I got the guys from the radio station past the doormen, and because Harris was so busy, spoke to them first. I talked into an old tape recorder about Harris, about his courage and remarkable faith in a God he truly trusted to deliver him one day. Harris took over a few minutes later and told them himself.

While he was occupied, I spoke about his surgery to a table of about twenty I was later told were ex-combatants. So interesting to me that Harris had invited some of the people that had treated him cruelly for a decade. I explained that Harris's tumor hadn't grown as a result of a curse. I told them the extra skin on his face would shrink over the next few months as his face remembered its pre-tumor shape. I explained about the bone graft he would have on April 2.

It was after midnight when Todd, Matt, Sam and I left for a tent at the nearby UN army compound, and the party showed no sign of slowing. It cost me $180. White rice and cassava and fish for about 50 at $1 a head. The rest in drinks. And $5 each for our bouncers, the Liberian National police.

It was the best money I've spent in years.


The next morning, word had spread of Harris's healing throughout Buchanan. When we arrived at his shack, a crowd of sick waited for us outside. Some had clubbed feet and were lame, some had goiters. Some came in wheelchairs. Simeon showed me a swollen pouch of flesh in his side where he thinks the bullet that shot him still is. Little Nyanyan had a huge swollen head - water had leaked into her brain. I examined a boy with epilepsy, and another that shakes violently in the night. A little baby with a neck that wouldn't move and eyes rolled back in her head. I donned rubber gloves from the first aid kid to avoid infection from open wounds, took pictures of all of them and contact information, referring many who were not candidates for surgery to Monrovia clinics and doctors.

Perhaps it was the desperation of the situation, seeing so many with conditions we couldn't operate on, so many we couldn't fix, that prompted us to pray. After the mini-screening was over, we invited them one by one to enter Harris's dingy, broken room and sit with us. The four of us huddled around in wooden and straw chairs, and spent the next few hours with them.

We prayed to the same God Harris had for years. A God we believe has the power to save. A God we believe is in the business of finding the lost sheep.

Towards the end of our time with them, Phillip walked into the room. Phillip had a large tumor on his face that had been growing for 9 years. It took me only a second to know we'd bring him back with us to the ship.

He had surgery 24 hours later.


3 minute video of homecoming
homecoming. images.
more words. harris parts one & two
more patient stories/photos
tell a friend

Tuesday, January 17

meet mariama.

meet mariama.
january 17, 2006.

12:25 p.m.
"Scott Harrison, please dial 151. Scott Harrison, please dial 151."

I was eating lunch when the call came over the ship's overhead paging system. I ran to a phone and dialed the extension, which connects us to calls from the outside.

It was Jamie and Cheryl. They had just crossed the border and entered Liberia. Mariama was with them.

I ran down the gangway and let the ship's security guards know to expect a woman in four hours or so with a large tumor. I asked them to page me when she arrived.

Today would be a great day.

I first heard about Mariama in November. I was forwarded an email with her pictures - images of a woman with a huge tumor growing out of her mouth. I knew she lived in a remote part of Guinea - a three days journey from our ship's berth in Monrovia, Liberia. Jamie and Cheryl were two Christian missionaries who had found her and knew her condition might be treatable on our hospital ship.

Mariama's tumor had grown for 20 years, but she had never left her village before. I initially offered to drive into Guinea to pick her up, but the missionaries said they'd try to convince her to travel with them to the ship. Mariama had no papers, so that would take some time to arrange. We told them to come whenever they could.

Over the past few months, I spoke off and on to Jamie, who would call to give updates from a satellite phone deep in the Guinean bush. They said it was difficult to convince Mariama to come. Her brother was against it. Her village was against it. Hoping it would help, I sent before and after surgery pictures of Beatrice, a patient from whose mouth we had removed a 8 pound tumor. The pictures eventually made the difference.

A few weeks, ago, Cheryl called and said they were coming. Mariama had agreed to make the journey. The leaders of her village had finally agreed to let her go, and finally given their blessing.

And today they would arrive.

5:45 p.m.

"She's here!"

A ship security guard gave me the news by reception, and I bounded down the gangway and greeted the threesome. Todd, a friend and cameraman, joined me and explained to Mariama through Jamie that we'd like to film and photograph her, to tell her story. Mariama speaks Fula, and not English. She was shy and hesistant, but agreed and as I photographed her; laughing as I showed her the images on my digital camera back.

Enter Sonja Frischknecht, who heads up Healthcare Services. Sonja is kind and always smiling, as we walked up the gangway together and entered the ship. Everything was fine well past reception and down the first corridor until we reached a staircase leading down to the ship's ward.

Mariama had never seen stairs before.

And she wouldn't budge. The missionaries spoke to her in Fula, and told us she was worried she'd never come back up. And that we would operate immediately. She kept peering over the edge, terror in her eyes. I ran down to the ward to enlist Harris's help. Even though he didn't speak her language, I thought maybe he could convince her to come. Harris eagerly bounced up the stairs with me, armed with his before photo and did his best. "Smile, Harris. Just smile!" I said as we crowded the stairwell. We tried everything.

"Harris! Go down and come back up! Then she'll know it's okay."

Harris complied, disappearing and then reappearing. But Mariama still wouldn't budge. Harris extended a hand. I offered to take pictures of what's "downstairs." Nothing worked. Ship staff and visitors bustled by the busy staircase as we negotiated. People greeted Mariama with smiles and handshakes.

Mariama was terribly frightened. And who could blame her. She was at one time reportedly told by her villagers, adament against her leaving, that the white people would eat her. And he we were, gathered in a crowd, speaking in strange tongues, trying to coax her down a narrow staircase with florescent lighting. We decide to go back outside and slow things down.

6:55 p.m.

I'm back on the ward, asking patients, translators, nurses: "Anyone speak Fula?" Nobody did, but Harris grabbed me. "Scott, go to Waterside and find some Fula people. Bring them back to her." Now Waterside is among the more dangerous areas of Monrovia, and not a place to travel after dark. I laughed at Harris.

And then, from across the ward, Alphonso waved me over.

Alphonso is Beatrice's son. I haven't seen him for six months, since Beatrice's surgery. And guess who was still in the Operating Room at seven p.m. Beatrice. She'd come back this morning for reconstructive surgery. Alphonso said he knew some Fula people that lived next to him. They were originally from Guinea, and spoke Mariama's language.

7:40 p.m.
I grabbed Todd and we jumped in a Land Rover for Clara Town. We found the Fula couple we were looking for next to Beatrice's house, and I explained our situation. Mohammed and his wife agreed to come with us and said they would talk to Mariama. They had witnessed first hand their neighbor's transformation after surgery, and could vouch for our intentions and results. After first visiting their amputee friend who had reinjured his bad leg, and promising to send back ibuprofen for the pain, we headed back to the ship.

8:20 p.m.
Dockside again under the post-operative care tent. Mohammed and his wife spoke to Mariama in words we were unsure of. But their tone was stern. Something along the lines of, "You've traveled three days to get an free operation. You're crazy if you don't get back on the ship." Jamie told us a few minutes later, "They gave her a guilt trip."

8:45 p.m.
Mariama walked up the gangway again, and down the corridor to the ward. To the staircase.

And this time she descended. She entered the ship's ward, a ward bustling with patients and visitors, and settled in the Intensive Care room, where she will enjoy some privacy tonight, some time to adjust. Jamie will sleep in the bed next to her.

9:05 p.m.
Harris stood in the ICU doorway as I held Mariama's and said go odnight reassuringly.

And then Mariama spoke to me through Jamie. She said that where she came from, people were afraid of her, they were afraid to touch her, afraid to look at her. She said this place was different.

Yes, this place is different.

see a 10 minute video of mariama entering the ship

see photos


more patient stories

Sunday, January 15


chopper trip with ethiopian troops to greenville, liberia.
80 minutes in the air, 14 hours by road.

All the pictures HERE

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