The photograph alone is disturbing: a boy named Claudio from the West African nation of Benin with a tumor so massive on the back of his neck that it equals the size of his head.
It is so heavy and large, it bends the boy’s head forward.
Kansas City’s Laura McDonald, an intensive care nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital, had grown used to seeing tumors among her patients in Africa.
Not like this.
“I was shocked,” McDonald, 28, wrote in an email Friday from the surgical hospital where she is doing a yearlong stint as a volunteer until May. “Patients like Claudio, especially ones who are here on the ship for a little longer, change you.”
While a political and humanitarian debate rages in the United States over President Donald Trump’s recent ban on refugee relocation, several individuals from the Kansas City region not only are volunteering to serve those in need in other lands, but also are paying their own costs to do so.
Guided not by politics but by faith, they are part of the crew of Mercy Ships’ Africa Mercy. It is a 500-foot-long floating surgical hospital that for the last four months has been docked in the waters off Benin and in August will head to Cameroon. Last year, it was in Madagascar’s waters.
Among the 400-member crew is Janet Stucky, a 65-year-old dietitian from North Newton, Kan., about 30 miles north of Wichita, who joined the ship in September after spending 2 1/2 years working on the mainland. Daily, she treats malnourished children with distended bellies like beach balls, and adults and children with malformed faces.
“I actually quit my job. I sold all I had. I wanted to serve people wherever God would lead me,” said Stucky, speaking by telephone. Her thoughts went to one patient in particular — a woman with a tumor the size of three grapefruits dangling beneath her chin.
The patient had been rejected by the people in her village, Stucky explained, who viewed her as being cursed. Another woman, with a similar tumor that had grown for more than seven years, was abandoned by her husband.
“We have children who have backward feet,” Stucky said. “We have children who can’t walk because their feet are pointed toward each other.”
Results of a survey by Harvard University surgeon Mark G. Shrime and colleagues, published online in 2015 in the journal The Lancet Global Health, suggest that upward of 30 percent of serious illnesses worldwide require some sort of surgical intervention. About 8 million individuals die or are injured each year because they can’t get decent surgery.
In the midst of that challenge, Stucky said, the concerns of politics, the presidential election and the firestorm over Trump’s executive order on refugees find little quarter.
“We don’t really talk about that,” Stucky said. “We’re just so busy working with people, that’s not our concern.”
Their concern, she said, is not what’s happening at home, but the help they can give to the people in front of them regardless of race or faith. Benin is about 27 percent Catholic, about 25 percent Muslim and 17 percent Vodoun, with the rest a mix of other religions.
“We accept everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are at all,” Stucky said, adding, “You can’t even explain it. It is so wonderful to see these people just brighten up, to have some hope.”
The Mercy Ships nonprofit, which has been operating since 1978, describes itself as following “the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus, bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.” Volunteers not only pay their airfare to fly out to meet the ship wherever it is docked, but they also pay about $500 to $700 a month for their expenses.
Among the 400 crew members are people from 40 nations who include nurses, surgeons, physical therapists, accountants, housekeepers, dentists, engineers, agriculturalists, bankers, housekeepers, cooks and others. Half tend to be medical personnel.
Joanne Persons, 24, a dental assistant from Neosho, Mo., has been on board since Jan. 22. It’s her first time out of the United States.
To Persons, the month she is giving to Mercy Ships, spending most of her time extracting teeth, is in keeping with what she views as a religious calling she’s held since childhood.
“I’ve felt like I was supposed to do this since I was 8 years old,” she said.
Sarah Long, a nurse who turns 26 at the end of February, will head to Africa shortly after her birthday. Her plan is to first head to Tanzania with her mother to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. They’ll next go to Nairobi on safari before Long boards the Africa Mercy in mid-March.
A pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s Mercy, Long also quit her job to serve on the ship. She’ll be gone two months.
“I first heard about Mercy Ships when I was in high school,” said Long, who grew up in Denver. “I just have a heart for serving other people who don’t have the same opportunities to access health care that we do in the States. … It is more than putting on a Band-Aid. You do really life-impacting surgeries.”
McDonald, the intensive care nurse who also left her job, said she’s also been affected, as her time with Claudio showed.
“That day we took off his dressing for the first time and let him see the back of his head was pretty special,” wrote McDonald, who also is keeping a blog of her experience. “He just couldn’t stop smiling and looking at it from different angles, and then he wanted to try on a hat right away.”
She continued, “When you see transformations in patients like him, both physically and emotionally and spiritually as well, things that seemed really, really important a few months ago seem to fade until you can’t quite remember what was so important about them in the first place.
“It’s hard to send patients like Claudio back out into their world and reality where you don’t know what will happen to them and what their lives will be like. But I believe that it is worth the effort even if we have made their lives better for even just a season.”