Coumba: Healed after 27 years

Coumba was on his family’s farm the day his life changed forever.

“Our mother cooked with fire,” he says. “It was a big farm, so my mother would light a fire in one place and then go to another. My little brother was playing by the fire, he got too close and started getting burned.

At just 4 years old, Coumba rushed to save her brother as the fire grew.

“I landed on my left side, so I burned there,” Coumba said. “Then my brother was crying a lot, which my mother heard, so he came to see us, but I was already completely burned on the left side.”

With his left arm fused in a bent position and his hand damaged, Coumba adapted to life with only one functional arm and hand. She grew up to marry, work as a maid, and raise three children on her rice and vegetable farm in northern Senegal. Coumba longed to tend the farm herself, as many other women do in Senegal, but her limited range of motion made this dream impossible.

After decades living with a bent arm, the operation on the Africa Mercy® hospital ship meant that, at 31, Coumba’s life was about to change.

An operation changes a whole life

Dr. Tertius Venter was the reconstructive plastic surgeon who operated on Coumba. A full-time volunteer originally from South Africa, Dr. Venter has participated in all Ships of Hope field services since 2000.

Coumba lacked access to adequate healthcare options, but his condition was treatable. With immediate care, Dr. Venter believes she would have grown up with full arm and hand function, as if the fire had never happened, aside from the cosmetic changes to the skin.

“The good thing about burns is that they only affect the skin, so it’s about scar and skin,” he explains. «The underlying muscle, tendons and nerves are usually not affected. “So we can release the contractures, return them to a normal position and get their muscles working again, so we can get good results.”

With stiff joints and muscles weakened by decades of inactivity, as well as his elbow stuck in a flexed position, Coumba’s operation was a long one. However, this did not faze her. “I barely felt any pain because I knew it was going to heal me,” she says.

A promising recovery

Dr. Jody Kissel, a volunteer hand therapist, helped Coumba relearn how to use his arm after surgery and taught him how to continue the rehabilitation process when he returned home.

“By the time a year passes, I have every hope that she will be able to lift her arm above her head, hang the laundry, take care of her son, and do the things she set out to do,” he says. Dr. Kissel.

Coumba’s biggest goal was to take care of her own crops on the farm where she lives.

“I know how to do everything except the necessary work on a vegetable farm,” Coumba said proudly. “In Senegal, the ladies usually 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 have to go get water from the well, and I can’t do it.”

Coumba was eager to free himself from that limitation.

Putting her hand in her mouth, moving her fingers, and twisting her arm were simple tasks that Coumba feared she would never do again, but as Dr. Kissel said, she was “a winner.”

Finally, Ella Coumba was able to leave the hospital and return home to hug her family, and she did so for the first time with both arms. There she discovered that her new physical abilities gave her independence in countless everyday aspects.

“I always wanted to do laundry, now I can,” she Coumba marveled. «Now I can go get firewood. Now I can get water from the wells. She could only use one hand. Now I can use both. All I can say is that I am happy and I thank God.

Learn more stories

Donate Now

As volunteers on hospital ships, we travel to provide free world-class health services and safe surgical care. We are dedicated to strengthening local health systems, making a difference in communities with limited access to health.