Mother’s relief as daughter given life-saving surgery by charity Mercy Ships 

  • Girl, three, had no surgeon who could treat her in home country of Sierra Leone
  • Charity in multi-year partnership with Ministry of Health to strengthen surgical system for children like Umu

A mother who lived in fear her daughter’s fast-growing tumor would suffocate her is rejoicing after a surgical charity gave her daughter life-saving surgery.

Without a single maxillofacial surgeon in her home country of Sierra Leone, Yei had no one who could treat her daughter.

While she was pregnant, Yei had no ultrasound, and no reason to think her baby would be born anything but healthy. When she first saw the lump on her baby’s face and neck at birth, she felt devastated.

Yei said: “I was afraid to see the tumor on her face.”

The tumor continued to grow daily, and, at age three, it was threatening her airway and making it harder for her to eat. Her mother sought help from every hospital she knew of but, without a single head, face and neck surgeon in the country, her efforts were in vain.

Yei recalled: “When I took Umu for walks, some children would run away from her because they were afraid of the tumor.

“People would ask so many questions about what was wrong with Umu. I didn’t have answers, because I didn’t know, either.”

The Children’s Hospital in Freetown helped Umu and Yei but despite its care and support, there was no one who could do her surgery to remove the tumor in the whole country, so it continued to grow, threatening her life.

Nine out of 10 people living in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to safe, affordable surgical care when they need it, according to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery.

Parents across sub-Saharan Africa face the impossible task of trying to find surgery in their home country for their children with no hope due to the lack of surgical provision.

A survey of four low-income countries, including Sierra Leone, showed that around 19 percent – that is nearly one in five children – has a surgically treatable condition.

Of these children, 62 percent have at least one unmet need – that is 3.7 million children living with a constant need of surgery that cannot be met in their country. Without it, they face death or a long-term disability.

Umu’s mother found hope when she heard international charity Mercy Ships was visiting Freetown to offer free surgery and medical training in one of its hospital ships. She made the journey to seek surgery.

Mercy Ships Surgeon volunteer Dr. Gary Parker said that without surgery: “She was at very high risk of suffocation with continued growth of the tumor.”

Yei, who had been briefed on the operation, and knew it was also potentially dangerous said, “I feared Umu would die.”

When her daughter returned, Yei cried again. This time, they were tears of joy and relief. She said, “I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”

A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Across sub-Saharan Africa, millions of parents are seeking surgery for their children with little hope of finding it due to the lack of safe and affordable surgical and anesthetic care in their nations. More than 115 million children were in need of surgery in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, according to a study by researchers from the UN and several universities across the globe. One study published in Lancet Global Health estimates that western Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest need for surgery in the world.

Where there are no in-country specialists, children with lower limb conditions must wait for a doctor from another country to visit.

Mercy Ships International Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mark Shrime, said: “Millions of parents and families need safe, timely, and affordable surgical and anesthetic care for their loved ones. Without it, they face death or a long-term disability.

“We are working proactively with governments across sub-Saharan Africa to identify and help fill the gaps in surgical care. Our structured plans focus on strengthening surgical care systems by investing in healthcare professionals, the infrastructure, the equipment, and the systems needed to have lasting impact on the nations that host us.”

Cumulatively, Mercy Ships has trained more than 15,800 medical professionals in Sierra Leone thus far through programs focusing on surgery, nursing, biomedical, sterile processing, and anesthesia. Since 1992, Mercy Ships has provided life-changing surgery to 1,089 pediatric patients in Sierra Leone alone through specialist surgical procedures.

The Global Mercy™ arrived in Freetown in August to begin Mercy Ships’ sixth visit to Sierra Leone, delivering maxillofacial surgery, general, pediatric specialized general, orthopedic, reconstructive plastics, and ophthalmology until June 2024. Some 2,350 patients will receive surgery. Training will be given to more than 200 Sierra Leonean healthcare professionals to help meet the unmet surgical need.