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.

Click here to see a ten minute video of Mariama.

Click here to see pictures of Mariama.

Meet Beatrice

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