A Samaritan's Purse medical team recently performed a week of cleft lip and palate operations in Liberia at the reconstructed ELWA Hospital
God used the skilled hands, compassionate hugs, and professional expertise of our cleft lip and palate medical team to bring new smiles to dozens of adults and children in Liberia during the first week of December. It was an early Christmas gift for 31 patients who had lip repairs/revisions and seven who had their palates fixed. In addition to these 38, there was an even greater number of caregivers—moms, dads, aunties, grandmas, and grandpas—who also went away from the experience praising the Lord for what He did for their families.
“I thank God. He did it,” said Martha, a widow whose 1-year-old grandson Augustine had his cleft lip surgery. After the operation, back in the pediatric ward, she worshipped God and was overcome by emotion in light of His faithfulness to her and the child.
Augustine was born late in 2015, not long after Martha’s husband passed away. Their 20-year-old son is the father. Martha said the mother rejected the baby from the outset and never breastfed him. In Liberia, especially in the bush, there is significant social stigma toward children born with clefts, and some believe they are evil spirits.
About two weeks after giving birth, the mother left Augustine on the living room floor of Martha’s house and fled. A month later, Martha finally tracked her down in another village. Convinced babies like Augustine could survive, she begged and pleaded for the mom to come back. The young woman wanted nothing to do with her child and relinquished him, Martha said.
Martha returned to her home with the baby. She talked with her pastor and prayed. “I pray to God to give me strength,” she said. She said she trusted God would help the baby one day.
Widowed and without livelihood, Martha began receiving weekly nutrition assistance for the baby from World Food Programme this spring. The trip to ELWA Hospital for the surgery was another huge answer to prayer. She thanked Samaritan’s Purse for sending a plane to get her.
She said wanted to sing and praise God in her own dialect when she returned home and would thank her pastor and fellow church members for praying for her and the baby during the past year.
A Heaven-Sent Ministry
In situations similar to that of Martha and Augustine, grandmothers and grandfathers were, surprisingly, raising several of the other child patients.
“[The parents] left him in my care because of his condition,” said Philip, a grandfather raising his 4-year-old grandson, Saah Philip. “From the time he was born, I took care of him throughout.”
The boy was sometimes treated badly by others because of his cleft lip.
“Sometimes his friends tell him not to follow them when they’re playing … That used to make me sad,” Philip said. “They say [to him], ‘You have an ugly mouth.’”
Nevertheless, Philip remained confident in God’s ability to provide.
“I believe in Jesus with my whole heart and believe He can solve all problems,” he said. He said he knew people would eventually come to help Saah Philip. “I was praying that you people would appear on my side.”
He and his grandson were helicoptered in for surgery last week. The surgery went well.
“I’m happy, more than overjoyed,” Philip said. He said there is no longer any reason to for him or his grandson to feel ashamed.
While not every patient had such dramatic stories to share, quite a few of them and their caregivers related stories of being mocked for various reasons.
Amos, a 31-year-old university student, is the father of 9-year-old Emily. She was born with a cleft palate, although her lip and smile are perfect.
“It’s been a burden for us,” Amos said. When Emily went to school, other children made fun of her because of her speech difficulties. He said she has returned home from classes with tears in her eyes, asking, “Will I ever talk better than this?”
Emily’s palate surgery was successful, and, with speech therapy, her pronunciation should improve.
“I am very much grateful to God, and I consider this as sent from heaven,” Amos said.
Partnering with ELWA Hospital
This was the first time a Samaritan’s Purse team had performed cleft lip and palate surgeries in Liberia. Since 2011, we have been conducting cleft surgical campaigns in South Sudan—completing more than 400 operations so far—and we also performed one week of surgeries in Bolivia in 2015.
The 18-member medical team was graciously hosted in Liberia by our own national staff members and by ELWA Hospital, which in October celebrated the end of a major reconstruction project led by Samaritan’s Purse. The hospital was founded by SIM in 1965 and continues to be run through that organization. We were the first foreign team to work at the hospital’s new facilities.
“It’s remarkable to recognize that this couldn’t have happened in our old hospital,” said Dr. John Fankhauser, chief executive officer of ELWA Hospital. The new hospital has twice as many beds as the old one and now offers three operating rooms instead of just one. The additional space was essential when an emergency Caesarean section had to be performed at the hospital while our surgeons were working on their first cleft patients.
When Samaritan’s Purse approached Dr. Fankhauser; Dr. Jerry Brown, medical director and general surgeon; and Kolu Mulbah-Kamah, nursing director, this spring about the cleft lip and palate program, everyone was enthusiastic.
“It fits with our mission. It helps with a need,” Dr. Fankhauser said. “Whenever we’re caring for people who are marginalized by society, I think we’re acting like Jesus did.”
Dr. Jerry Brown was among those heroic Ebola fighters featured on the Person of the Year covers of “Time” magazine in late 2014. He has recently started performing cleft operations at ELWA and is strategically positioned to continue the ministry. He welcomed our team in order that he and his staff can continue to learn more about this specialty and also because he has seen the depth of need in the country. He said that, post-Ebola, he has seen increasing numbers of unrepaired cleft lips and palates. Options for such surgeries were nil during the Ebola crisis, which started in 2014, and the country was only declared Ebola-free [for the fourth time] in June 2016.
Dr. Brown was keen to interact with our team, which included three surgeons with extensive international experience: Dr. Bill Rhodes who serves in Kenya; Dr. Jim Wade from Abingdon, Virginia; and Dr. Tom Boeve from Beloit, Wisconsin. There are no speech-language pathologists in Liberia, said Dr. Brown, so he was hoping his staff could learn from our pathologist, Courtney Bell, who worked with caregivers and patients, especially child palate cases.
Expanding Our Reach into the Bush
One exciting aspect of the Liberia project, which mirrors the South Sudan program, is the use of our mission aviation services. We have a helicopter and Cessna Caravan in Liberia, both of which were used extensively to transport patients to and from Montserrado County where ELWA Hospital is located.
Rural roads in Liberia are difficult, if not impossible, to cross during the long rainy season, which is currently winding down. It would have taken days for many of our patients in the bush to reach ELWA Hospital, draining away both time and money—an especially disheartening prospect for impoverished Liberians still struggling to recover from more than a decade of civil war (1989-1996; 1999-2003) and the paralyzing Ebola outbreak.
“Without aviation, you’re just going to do the program here in Monrovia. That’s it. It’s too hard to get out there. With aviation, you can cover the country,” said Noel Fouts, aviation director and pilot for Samaritan’s Purse mission aviation services in Liberia.
Many of the patients and caregivers expressed sincere thanks for picking them up from remote areas. The ingathering of patients—by aircraft or otherwise—was overseen by Pastor Love Gibson, Cleft Lip and Palate Program assistant for Liberia.
Even some who were not picked up by plane or helicopter were grateful for the fact that our staff tracked them down in difficult-to-access areas and continued to follow up with them.
“I’m happy that day for someone to come look for me and help the little child,” said Margret, who brought her 3-year-old daughter Hellena for a cleft lip repair. Pastor Gibson found her in New Kru Town, a poorer area of greater Monrovia, and stayed in contact with her so she would not miss out on the campaign.
“It’s never happened like this before. In Liberia, doctors don’t look for patients, patients look for doctors,” Margret said. Previously, she had tried multiple times before to get Hellena surgery in other hospitals but always arrived too late.
Sharing the Love of Jesus Christ
One unique aspect of the recent campaign in Liberia was the distribution of Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes to patients 14 years old and younger. Older teenagers and adults received English language Bibles.
Along with the shoeboxes, children and their caregivers received the Greatest Gift booklets—which attractively present the Gospel story. Many also heard Daniela Spevak present the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. Daniela, who serves on our Liberia national team, was born and raised in war-torn Serbia and received a shoebox herself as a child.
Patients and caregivers who were flown stayed at a camp on ELWA’s grounds. Their host mom was Joyce, mother of 5-year-old Giftey. Joyce has courageously raised Giftey by herself despite the extreme complexity of her cleft lip and palate case. Giftey’s condition needs to be handled outside Liberia, and Samaritan’s Purse (Canada) is sponsoring her and Joyce to go to Benin for possible treatment in January 2017.
Whether at the camp or the hospital, our medical team as well as our national staff had numerous opportunities to minister to patients and caregivers in word, deed, and prayer throughout the week.
“The reason that we exist as an organization is to share the love of Jesus Christ. So, [during] this cleft lip and palate program, we’ve intentionally set up spaces and time and assigned staff just to come and minister—to pray with parents, to love on the children, to share Jesus Christ if they don’t know Jesus Christ, to give them an Operation Christmas Child shoebox, to give them a Bible,” said Kendell Kauffeldt, Samaritan’s Purse Liberia county director.Overall, the Cleft Lip and Palate program’s first venture into Liberia can be counted as a great success. For a country badly in need of good news, the weeklong campaign brought hope to many families.
“God can use this program to bring hope when people so desperately need it,” said Karen Daniels, our cleft program’s co-manager and a registered nurse. Looking ahead to next year’s Liberia campaign, already in the works, she added: “As we continue to focus on those rural areas and develop our capacity for transport and support of them, I think they [more patients] will start to come out of the woodwork.”