Have you ever met someone whose eyes dance when they talk? That’s the very first thing everyone notices when they encounter 3-year-old Umu. Her aunt, Fatmata, has always been amazed by Umu’s effortless ability to make friends, regardless of where she goes. “She’s a very brave girl,” Fatmata shared. “She’s intelligent. She’s a fast learner.”
But although this contagious joy is Umu’s trademark now, it wasn’t always this way. Her birth came with an unexpected twist as she entered the world with a benign tumor growing from the side of her face and neck. This was a shock to her mother, Yei, who’d had no reason to expect anything other than a healthy baby girl. Seeing her firstborn with the growth was utterly devastating.
“I was afraid to see the tumor on her face,” Yei remembered about the day she gave birth and saw Umu for the first time. “No one would be happy to see that.”
It didn’t take long for the painful reality of Umu’s condition to set in. While Yei was pregnant, her aunt Rebecca had requested that the baby be named after her, hoping to finally have a namesake of her own.
It all changed when Rebecca laid eyes on Umu. She took back her request, telling Yei she no longer wanted Umu as her namesake.
“It hurt me a lot,” shared Yei.
It wasn’t just family members and close friends that commented on Umu’s tumor. Strangers reacted, too.
“When I took Umu for walks, some children would run away from her because they were afraid of the tumor,” remembered Yei. “People would ask so many questions about what was wrong with Umu. I didn’t have answers, because I didn’t know either.”
Umu’s family tried all different kinds of remedies. They sampled traditional herbal medicines. They fasted for seven days and nights. They looked into surgical options, but there wasn’t a single maxillofacial surgeon in their country of Sierra Leone. They were told their best bet was traveling abroad for Umu’s complicated surgery. But the cost of the travel and medical care was too high for the family of farmers to afford.
Umu kept growing, and so did her tumor. While her condition wasn’t yet life-threatening, the tumor was growing dangerously close to her airway. “She most certainly was at very high risk of suffocation with continued growth of the tumor,” shared Dr. Gary Parker, volunteer Mercy Ships surgeon.
At her young age, Umu remained blissfully unaware of the glances and stares of others, so her confidence and social nature were unaffected. But she couldn’t escape the physical burden of her tumor. “Can’t we just get a knife and cut it off? It’s so heavy,” she’d ask her mother.
Hope Shining in the Darkness
During these years, Umu was never alone. Although hope waned, her family was always by her side. She received regular care at the Children’s Hospital in Freetown, where she was treated by the kind Dr. Bah.
Eventually, through the help of a network of family, friends, and even strangers, Umu heard about Mercy Ships.
Accompanied by her mother and aunt, Umu traveled to the Global Mercy™, where she was told she could receive free surgery to remove her tumor. According to Ria Bos, Mercy Ships Director of Patient Selection, there was no time to waste when it came to Umu’s surgery. They decided to operate on Umu quickly, believing that waiting any longer would have led to “potential airway risk developing… potential worse nutritional status, and potentially more complex surgery due to further growth of the mass.”
After trying and failing to receive treatment so many times before, the news brought a fresh wave of joy to Umu’s family.
“When they told me, I was happy because I know she’s a beautiful girl and I know at the time when the operation is going to be done, she is going to be even more beautiful. It’s going to be a successful story,” shared her aunt Fatmata, growing teary-eyed at the memory.
“It’s going to be a good feeling explaining how far we’ve come.”
Getting an appointment for surgery caused a huge exhale of relief – but the journey wasn’t over yet. First, Umu had to go through the operation itself. Watching her daughter get wheeled away to the operating room was a terrifying moment for Yei.
“I feared Umu would die,” she said. The uncertainty was crippling.
“When Umu came back and the surgery was successful, I cried tears of joy. I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”
After Umu had recovered on board, the family returned to their home and started their new normal. She has continued receiving follow-up care at the Children’s Hospital to ensure she stays healthy. Without the burden of her tumor, Umu has found newfound freedom as she plays and explores without judgment. She started school for the first time, just like her peers. Able to eat and drink more easily than before, her health has skyrocketed as she grows taller and stronger day by day.
“Life has been amazing since the operation was done,” shared Fatmata. “We were thinking that when the operation was done, maybe it’s going to hurt again, but that didn’t happen. Now, when I take a walk with her, all the people would be like, ‘Oh, she is beautiful.’”
Instead of staying at home, Umu is hard to track down because she loves to be outside, playing with her neighbors until it’s time for bed.
In seemingly impossible circumstances, hope, joy, and peace can come from the kindness of strangers. This Christmas, be part of sharing the gift of peace with others.