To read about when we had the honour of accompanying him back to his hometown (Sambany part II), click here.
2015, edited 2017
On January 21, 2015, a man trembled up our gangway and did something that not many people manage to do:
He became a part of all our lives.
Not only that, but hundreds of us became a part of his.
Over the next several weeks, his name would be spoken across eight decks on a ship in Madagascar, on a dockside splashed by the Indian Ocean, in rooms on other continents. Hundreds of prayers would reach God’s ears for him, tears would be shed for him, and social media would explode with his story. What was so special about this man?’
Around 36 years ago, this tumour began growing until it became what you see here: a monstrous burden weighing 7.46 kg (16.45 lbs). This slender man was carrying the weight of two extra heads. Dr. Gary Parker, our chief medical officer and maxillofacial surgeon who has worked on the ship for three decades as of 2017, says, ‘It’s one of the biggest tumours of this type that I’ve seen.’
This tumour became a burden on Sambany’s heart and mind. When we ask him about the blue-black ink fading on his arm, ‘VALAKA FOANA IREO TSY TIA AHY’ (Note: this was what the spelling should have been according to the translator, but may not have exactly been this spelling on his arm), his answer transports us back to when he was a young man in a little village in the depths of Madagascar, where it all began. People mocked him, laughed at him. Some people thought it was contagious, some didn’t want to talk to him. Heart-breakingly, a number of people who were unkind to him were his own relatives.
Harsh words were flung at him, ‘Why are you still standing? Why are you still alive? Why are you looking for help? No one can help!’ He shares, ‘‘I was very sad. In so much pain, because everyone thought there was no way for me to get well. I was very disappointed in my mind because of all the pain I was enduring … I was always alone.’ He commemorated this time deep into his skin: ‘All who hate me will be tired.’
Over time, the mocking died down, people left, and the young and new people were kinder. However, he still felt the sting of self-consciousness. ‘They just look at me. They look at me with my disease … I was shy, but I live in a village. I have to walk between people even if I am shy … As soon as I leave my house, everybody looks at me.’
The tumour was a burden on his body. Unrelenting in growth, it sometimes felt ‘hot like fire.’ Sometimes, ‘I cannot sleep at night, and even during the day … It was heating me up.’ Constant discomfort, ‘When walking, it’s too heavy. I have to hold it, it bothers me. Sometimes I can’t stand it.’ At one point, soon before he came to us, ‘It was bleeding for around twelve days.’
Eventually, he became so weak that he could not do anything. He woke up, ate, slept. Woke up, ate, slept. The tumour had become a weight chaining him to his bed, shrinking his world down to the size of his home. It was difficult for Sambany to see his family work so hard and take care of him, whilst he watched helplessly. ‘I felt useless.’ They were poor. They had to make a long, arduous walk to get to the food market, and labour hard in the rice fields to make money. Money spent on trying to help Sambany was money taken away from food.
They tried everything they could. Ten hospitals, three of which had surgeons, a witch doctor, hundreds of kilometres of travelling in search of a solution … with no success. Their poverty blocked any other option. Hopelessness defined his life.
Sambany told us,
‘One year ago, I was waiting for the time, ‘When, God, are you going to take me?’
I was waiting to die. I could not do anything.
Every day, I was just waiting to die.’
Always at home, there was not much else to do but listen to the radio. It was a day just like any other when Sambany heard the news: a hospital ship that can treat tumours, for free, was coming to Tamatave, Madagascar!
His family were apprehensive about him going in his weak state, but he was determined, ‘I don’t have money to treat it. I want to go if there is someone who can help me!
Die or survive, I want to go!’
COMMUNITY: COME, UNITY.
‘I can’t carry it (the ring) for you … but I can carry you!’
-Samwise Gamgee to Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
(ellipses and italics added)
If it weren’t for Sambany’s family, he would never have made it to the ship. For a man of Sambany’s age, the normal hemoglobin count is around 12-15 g/dL, according to ward nurse Marta Chase. She says, ‘His hemoglobin is 3.8 g/dL! I’m like, ‘Whaaat!’ … People with low hemoglobin are typically very, very tired. They can be light-headed, just weak all over, they can feel sick and ill.’ The closest road was days away. Journeying the hundreds of kilometres to Tamatave, where the ship is docked, would have been impossible.
His family are the reason it was possible.
Sambany was carried on the backs of five relatives, up hills, for two days. When the ground was flat, he walked slowly using a stick. The small rice field they had sold in order to afford the journey was not enough for all of them to come to Tamatave, so when they reached the bus station on the third day, Sambany and Flavy continued alone. Sambany endured a painful taxi-brousse (Malagasy bus) ride to Tamatave for hours. Out of money upon arriving, the kind driver agreed to take them to our HOPE centre for free … Where we met him for the first time.
‘FIND US SAMBANY TO LOVE’: A SHIP FULL OF PEOPLE WHO CARE.
Sambany was carried on the backs of five people to get to our ship, but he was carried on the backs of many more people on the rest of his journey to getting his tumour removed.
Due to multiple health concerns, Sambany’s surgery would be extremely high risk. For almost two weeks, he rested as the medical team earnestly tried to determine the best course of action.
Meanwhile, his story spread throughout the ship. It made its way into our community meeting and appeared as signs on doors, where all were asked to pray. It lent its voice as concerned requests for updates, manifested as someone going hungry as he fasted, dampened tissues with tears. Sambany penetrated our lives. Many of our community dedicated themselves to loving one man.
With one decision, Sambany’s entire life was changed.
The medical team said yes.
Was he nervous before the surgery? Not at all. He was well aware of the risks,
‘I know without surgery I will die.
I know I might die in surgery, but I already feel dead inside …
I choose to have surgery.’
If you didn’t know the word for ‘happy’ in Malagasy, you would have learned it the day before his surgery. Sambany said it a LOT! Faly, faly, faly, faly, faly!
POURING OURSELVES INTO SAMBANY.
Sambany’s story is full of astonishing numbers. One of his most meaningful numbers is 17: the number of people who donated blood to him. Our crew is the blood bank on board. As of today, the blood of 17 people, from 6 nations, runs through Sambany’s veins.
Dr. Gary says, ‘There was a very, very strong blood supply to this tumour.’ The tumour was sucking the life out of him. Our crew members literally poured life back.
A ‘DEAD MAN’ IS ALIVE.
The surgery took over half a day, with over twice of his body volume of blood lost and replaced.
Dr Gary describes it, ‘Oftentimes, in operations, you have high-stress moments where you’re in the middle of something, where in that moment if something goes wrong, you could lose the patient from a severe hemorrhage or something. But then, other times … it’s not high pressure. With Sambany, it was pretty much high pressure the whole twelve hours of the surgery.’
Later, government and business liaison Pierre Christ would burst into my office exclaiming, ‘There was a vibration on the ship!’ He was referring to the abundance of prayer our community had lifted up for him.
God must have been listening.
On the 3rd February 2015, in a little room on a ship floating in the Indian Ocean, Sambany’s life was saved. After nearly two thirds of his life, he was finally free!
Photographer Katie Keegan puts it well, ‘This place is full of a whole lot of people who shouldn’t be living. Like a whole lot.’
Dr Gary says, ‘To me, I think that every human being has the right to look human. To be treated as human. To have a place at the table of the human race. And when you have been deprived that seat, and it’s offered to you again … For him to be able to re-enter the human race and to look like everyone else – that’s a fantastic thing.’
Our ship’s heart throbbed with joy for Sambany.
It throbbed as delighted conversations, grins, people praising God, people sharing his story with others, and over the next little while, as glad visitors who he loved to greet with a handshake.
(As an aside, the night of his operation, my friend Annette and I stumbled upon one of the surgeons who helped to save his life, Dr John Rowland, in the dining room. After a big surgery, a man gets hungry. He was eating chicken (I watched him cut the chicken. I could not fathom how he was capable of cutting his chicken after hours of cutting a tumour). Between grateful bites, he commented, ‘That was quite a case. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
We asked him how he was feeling. ‘I’m very pleased we got it out. I’m still recovering. Still processing. It’s pretty amazing …’ Annette asked him if he had time to rest the next day. John replied, ‘Probably not. I think we have a cabin inspection. I think we failed it today.’ Failed cabin inspection*, saved a man’s life? I think the ship can let you off this one time, John. Dr. Gary joined us, a cup of Rooibos tea cradled in his hands (‘Keeps all of South Africa going’). I imagined that it must be nice to talk about things like tea and food in a day where their thoughts had been focused on things like tumour removal and keeping a man alive. John left to go to sleep, ‘I might miss exercise class.’
I remember going to sleep that night with a full, full, FULL heart.
*For accuracy’s sake, we’re not actually sure whether he did fail cabin inspection or not.)
SAMBANY = ‘FOR THE FIRST TIME.’
How fitting it is that Sambany’s name means ‘for the first time.’ The morning after the operation, a group of us watched, breathlessly, as he looked at himself in a hand-held mirror … For the first time, without his tumour.
With wet eyes set in a head wrapped carefully in bandages, he gazed at the mirror and said, ‘I like it. I am happy.’
Later in his recovery, he added,
‘I am free. I am well. I am free from my disease. I’ve got a new face,’ and,
According to nurse Marta, who spent hours taking care of him, Sambany after the surgery became almost like a grandfather on the ward, to her and other patients. She says, ‘I have just really enjoyed getting to know him. He’s just a very kind man to anybody he encounters … He just looks out for everybody. If somebody’s having a bad day he just kinda watches them, or he’ll walk around and shake everybody’s hand as he’s getting up to go to the bathroom, or he just tries to interact with people and be an encouragement to them, is one thing that I’ve seen since his surgery.
Before his surgery, that wasn’t so much the case. It’s been fun to see him come out of his shell a little bit since having the surgery.’
A few weeks later, the communications team prepared a special surprise for the weekly community meeting; a video sharing Sambany’s story. There were tears, gasps, people clutching their faces, intense focus. Afterwards, the real surprise was revealed:
Sambany, followed by his faithful grandson Flavy, walked into the meeting.
The room exploded.
This was in my notes that day, ‘What a Moment.
Everybody stood up – no one had said anything, people just started standing up, applauding … When he came in, his hands were raised up. He smiled a lot, Faithful Flavy walked behind him, grinning like crazy. My heart was soooo, soooo full … of joy and surrealness and I can’t actually believe this is happening. It was a MOMENT. And not only was it a MEANINGFUL moment – it was a meaningful moment SHARED BY THE WHOLE COMMUNITY.
JUST THIS INCREDIBLE JOY. THIS VICTORY. THIS CLIMAX.’
I remember being struck by the utter incredulity of it all – the once impossible had become possible. I remember thinking, ‘Could he ever, in his wildest, wildest dreams, have imagined?!’
One year ago, he was waiting to die. Now, hundreds were celebrating his life.
We were asked, ‘if you were in the OR, stand up.’
‘If you gave blood, stand up.’
‘If you prayed, stand up.’
My notes after this statement, ‘Pretty much nearly the WHOLE room were on their feet!!!!!
Incredible. Just a moment of BOND and TOGETHERNESS – wasn’t this what we were made for?!’ An e-mail later, ‘I LOVE how the WHOLE SHIP banded together in love for this one man, fighting this war together against his tumour and death.’
When I think about why the impossible became possible for him – one of the conclusions I come to is this: community and God. On so many levels. I believe that God does a lot of His healing through each of us, for each other. I think that’s one of the reasons He’s so big on the loving each other thing.
I thought about all the paths that had converged onto this very moment. From the years of hard work, perseverance, study and student loans that our volunteers from various departments who had trained in some field had sacrificed (could they ever have imagined this?), to all the fundraising or working in order to afford this, selfless service and hard work of every single volunteer aboard (could they ever have imagined this?), to all of the people around the world praying, donating, volunteering (could they ever have imagined this?), to all the people not even connected to Mercy Ships but who had dedicated themselves to research/inventing procedures/technology … all these people had chosen to give of themselves to others. Sambany’s family had brought him to our ship community, and our ship family had banded together to love him.
All of these people are the reason this moment was able to exist.
Through no fault of his own, Sambany had been rendered genuinely helpless. Think about this: he actually needed other people in order to stay alive. And in this world, he’s not the only one – how many more out there need other people, genuinely unable to help themselves?
Can you imagine if one day that was you?
Who will help those who cannot help themselves? We were not made to live life alone, nor just for ourselves. All of the people mentioned above were not passive bystanders; they first had their eyes open to see, responded by taking action in some form. I don’t mean at all that we were all meant to do volunteering overseas; we are all made different – but I do think that with whatever we have, wherever we are, we have a responsibility to love each other in our context. Whether it be by being good to our siblings, taking care of ageing parents, being a caring co-worker, a faithful friend, intentional about staying informed about the world, getting involved in our community – every little bit counts.
To me, Sambany standing up there, bathed in light, applause and joy, was a
symbol of the power of a community to work together to do good.
I personally believe that God had something to do with the way that evening was orchestrated – earlier that evening a few of our girls had performed the song by Sons and Daughters, ‘Set Free.’ From memory (this may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure), I don’t think they knew that our comms team would showing the video, nor did we know they would be singing it. The song was SOOOOO relevant:
‘I am set free, oh oh oh oh! It is for freedom that I am set free!
And yes Lord we are grateful for Your grace and for Your love.’
It was the anthem of our night. The anthem of Sambany’s dawn.
The New Beginning.
To read about when we had the honour of accompanying him back to his hometown (Sambany part II), click here.
Contains editing by Nancy Predaina.
Photos by Katie Keegan, Josh Callow, Ruben Plomp, Justine Forrest and Eunice Hiew.