Coumba was at her family’s farm on the day that her life changed forever.
“Our mother used to cook with fire,” she said. “It was a big farm, so my mother would start a fire in one place, then go to another. My little brother was playing by the fire, got too close, and started to burn.”
At just 4 years old, Coumba rushed in to save her brother as the fire grew.
“I fell on my left side, so I burned there,” Coumba said. “My brother was then crying a lot, which my mother heard, so she came to us, but I was already entirely burnt on my left side.”
With her left arm fused in a bent position and her hand damaged, Coumba adjusted to life with only one functional arm and hand. She grew up to marry, work as a maid, and raise three children on their rice and vegetable farm in northern Senegal. Coumba longed to take care of the farm herself, like many other women do in Senegal, but her limited range of motion made this dream impossible.
After decades of living with a bent arm, surgery on the Africa Mercy® meant that at the age of 31, Coumba’s life was about to change.
One Surgery Leads to a Whole Life Changed
Dr. Tertius Venter was the reconstructive plastic surgeon who performed Coumba’s operation. A full-time volunteer originally from South Africa, Dr. Venter has served during every field service with Mercy Ships since 2000.
Coumba lacked access to suitable healthcare options, but her condition was treatable. With immediate care, Dr. Venter believes she would have grown up with complete functionality of her arm and hand, as if the fire had never happened, aside from cosmetic changes to her skin.
“The good thing about burn injuries is only the skin is involved, so it’s scar and skin,” he said. “The underlying muscle, the tendons, the nerves are usually not involved. So we can release the contractures, get them back in a normal position, and then their muscles can function again, so we can get good outcomes.”
With her joints stiffened and muscles weakened from decades of inactivity, as well as her elbow having been stuck in a flexed position, Coumba’s surgery was extensive. This did not faze her, though. “I barely felt the pain because I knew I was going to be healed,” she said.
A Promising Recovery
Volunteer hand therapist Dr. Jody Kissel helped Coumba relearn how to use her arm after the surgery and taught her how to continue the rehabilitation process upon returning home.
“By the time a year’s up, I have every bit of hope that she will be able to raise her arm up over her head, be able to hang up laundry, to be able to care for her child, and do those things she said she was hoping as a goal to do,” Dr. Kissel said.
Coumba’s biggest goal was tending to her own crops on the farm where she lives.
“I can do everything, except the work needed on a vegetable farm,” Coumba said with pride. “In Senegal, ladies tend to have a small space where they can have potatoes, carrots, and peppers that they use to cook their own food, but to do that, you must go and fetch water from the well, and I cannot do that.”
Coumba couldn’t wait to free herself from that limitation.
Putting her hand to her mouth, moving her fingers, and rotating her arm were simple tasks that Coumba feared that she would never do again, but as Dr. Kissel put it, she was “an overcomer.”
Coumba was eventually ready to leave the hospital and return home to embrace her family — doing so with both arms for the very first time. There, she discovered that her newfound physical abilities gave her independence in countless everyday ways.
“I always wanted to do the laundry, now I can,” Coumba marveled. “I am able to fetch firewood now. I can draw water from wells now. I only could use one hand. Now I can use both my hands. All I can say is I am happy and I thank God!”