Diarra’s promising future

For Diarra, 25, entering the operating room of the Africa Mercy® hospital ship was a moment more than a decade in the making. She had been seeking a cure for a facial tumor for almost half of his life.

“I feel so good inside my heart,” he exclaimed about his opportunity for surgery. “I’ve been to a lot of different doctors, but they couldn’t cure it.”

She couldn’t remember when the tumor started growing. All she remembers is being a teenager and experiencing a toothache that led to a small growth. From there, she “continued to grow.”

Diarra’s parents took her to several hospitals. Each visit was a step in an uphill battle, made difficult by their meager income as small farmers. The medical costs were significant, forcing them to choose between caring for their other children or seeking a cure for her daughter. Finally, they stopped searching.

Days turned into years, and the tumor remained. «It affected me a lot. There were many activities that I would have liked to do, but I couldn’t,” Diarra said.

Years later, Diarra met and married her husband. By then, she knew her condition required surgery, but the couple faced financial challenges similar to those of her parents.

“I had almost given up,” she said, resigning herself to a life with the tumor.

“I must be healthy to take care of her”

When she gave birth to her daughter, Diarra was overjoyed. Becoming a mother was a lifelong dream. However, amid the euphoria, a shadow persisted. She wanted to witness every milestone in her daughter’s life, but she feared she would not be healthy enough.

The desire to improve became overwhelming and urgent. “I have to be healthy to take care of her,” she told herself.

In 2021, Diarra heard over the radio that Ships of Hope, a religious organization that operates a fleet of hospital ships, would return to Dakar. “The ad said they would give free surgeries for people with tumors like me,” she said. The news lit a spark that became a beacon of possibility. Diarra clung to hope with unwavering determination.

Preoperative appointments revealed that Diarra had a rare, non-cancerous tumor that started in the cells that make up the protective enamel lining of her teeth. Without surgical intervention, such tumors continue to grow and could block the airways, making it impossible to breathe and eat. Dr. Josh Wiedermann, a US Ships of Hope volunteer surgeon, explained that in higher-income countries, such cases could be detected in the early stages during routine dental exams.

Because Diarra had not been able to access timely and affordable surgical care, what started as a toothache had grown into a significant tumor. After her appointment, she was approved for surgery on the hospital ship Africa Mercy.

Diarra and her husband lived far from the ship, and traveling for surgery meant leaving her daughter behind for the first time. But the thought of finally getting help fueled their seven-hour drive.

«She had prayed for so long; We had searched everywhere. “We are so happy!” Diarra’s relief welled up as she waited to board the hospital ship.

Because the tumor was rooted in his jaw, part of his jaw was removed and a metal plate was inserted to recreate the profile of his jaw. She would need to heal for up to three months before receiving another surgery to replace the metal with her bone.

When the Africa Mercy ship left Dakar in 2022, Ella Diarra was not yet ready for a second surgery, so she was asked to return to the Global Mercy™ ship in 2023.

Optimism for the future

“I couldn’t stop touching my face!” Diarra described how her daughter reacted when she came home after her surgery. While she was on board, she had regularly called her husband, Boye, at home. «You can’t imagine how happy I am. “We have lost a lot of money because of that disease, and I never had surgery,” she said.

Follow-up surgery on the hospital ship Global Mercy was much less daunting for Diarra. «My family couldn’t believe that I had undergone not one, but two surgeries. “They were more than happy… They were so happy that they cried,” she said.

Before her first surgery, Diarra had isolated himself, hoping to protect himself from her prying eyes. “I wanted to have a business, but I couldn’t go to the market because they were just looking,” she remembers. But after healing, Diarra blossomed with a newfound optimism. No longer burdened by the tumor, she longs to embark on a journey of entrepreneurship. The weight of isolation and fear has been lifted from her shoulders. Most importantly, she is free to look toward a healthy future in which she can watch her daughter grow up.

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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.