April 27, 2010

My stomach does flips when I think about writing this story. I have been hesitant to tell it through type, knowing that much is lost when experience turns to storytelling turns to blogging. But I want to tell it, as much for your knowing as for my own internal equilibrium. Here it goes:

A growing Catholic parish on the east side of Lome has nearly completed construction of their new church, a majestic cathedral. It lacks only some wall panels and exterior fixes, but already the priests celebrate Mass inside. It dwarfs the old church standing 30 feet to the side, a single story, cinderblock building with little fanfare. Inside this humble structure, Saint Charbel, Saint Faustina and their comrades stare out of sandy picture frames. Two wobbly candelabras and a tabernacle indicate that the space is still used for silent prayer and Adoration. It is also the space where we hold our Friday clinics.

Despite our being exclusively an eye clinic, myriad medical conditions–from hernias to Parkinson’s to goiters to elephantiasis–find their way through our doors. Mercy Ships specializes in a tiny slice of this broad spectrum, so often I must say that there is nothing we can do to help. If it does match up to one of Mercy Ships’ programs, I try just as quickly to triage to the correct screening site.

Back in February, our first ever Friday clinic has just begun. The hundreds upon hundreds outside are pushed up against the front doors and the front of the building in a wall of angry flesh. Inside, I am arranging the visual acuity stations and worrying about the mess outside. One translator approaches me, a man and a woman trailing him. Somehow, they have slipped through the masses and sneaked in through a back door. “V.V.F.,” he says, short for vesicovaginal fistula, or a hole in the vaginal wall. Aha! We have a program for that! I think to myself. Pull out the clinic listing, point to the correct (i.e. not eye) clinic and move ’em on out. Easy.

Several minutes later, our ophthalmologist Liz pulls me to the side. It is the urgency in her voice that yanks me out of my logistics bubble and into the gravity of the situation at hand. Apparently aware that they were being shooed away, the pair has interrupted Liz’s eye exams to try for help a second time. “Alana, this is a V.V.F. woman,” she says.

Women with V.V.F. are not ordinary patients. Medically, they are no better or worse off than the other patients we help. In every other way, they suffer greatly. When a hole is created between the bladder and the vaginal wall, urine leaks out incessantly. You can imagine the smell, the fluid dripping down their legs, the trail of waste. Husbands leave them. Villages reject them. They often live in the countryside, utterly alone. They have been thrown away. The world has declared them less than human.

Liz leads the pair to a quiet corner, just in front of the church’s tabernacle. I phone the hospital and eventually get some contact info for the nurse coordinating the V.V.F. program. I walk back to the corner where the two people sit quietly. The woman does not raise her eyes to meet mine, leaving the man to answer all of the translator’s questions.

“Does she have children?”


“Has she been deserted?”


“Was she cut?”


Liz fears the worst. That she has been genitally mutilated. That the procedure was botched, leaving a fistula in its stead. The man at her side is a pastor and has taken pity on her.

The stench of urine sits heavy. Lord, my heart is not big enough to hold onto such sorrow! Here she sits, and I glance up, and there in front of us is the Blessed Sacrament. Christ in the flesh in a piece of bread, and Christ in the flesh right in front of me, hunched over on a bench. For once it is so clear, this presence of God in the weakest among us. I feel the immediate obligation to love, for what other response is there? But for no good reason I waste ten or fifteen seconds silently hemming and hawwing about whether my action will offend her, or frighten her, or appear insincere. And then I muster up some courage: I rest my hand on her arm, and she looks up briefly, and I smile at her, because she speaks some tribal language and I do not. The best I can give is not grandiose but very small.

The man tells us that she hardly has enough money to return home. She has traveled 150 kilometers to see us. Liz and I dig into the deep pits of our pockets and bags, a futile search for coins. It is silly to bring money to a place like our clinics. Someone finds a US $1 bill. Liz tucks it into the woman’s hand, and she appears stunned at the gift. I walk the two to the door, say goodbye, watch the woman shuffle down the steps. I promise her that we want to help her, promise that we will call the phone number she wrote down, which cannot possibly be hers, since she has no money.

Back at the ship, I sit down with the V.V.F. coordinator. I hand her a copy of the woman’s contact details; the original paper is zipped in a plastic bag with other treasured scraps that I would hate to lose. We talk about the woman, about what happened to her, about helping her. I learn that the organization which funds the V.V.F. program has set limitations. Only certain fistulas will be considered for operation on the ship.

The target population is poor women who live in remote areas–women who have no prenatal care, women who labor for days and days in their huts. The constant pressure from the baby pushing down creates a hole. But you see, vaginal fistulas can also be caused by hysterectomies and other gynecological/obstetric surgeries. The knife slips, opening a hole, unnoticed by the surgeon. The funding organization does not want this second group of women–who could obviously afford surgery in the first place–to be included in the pool of candidates for surgery on the ship. Only women who have fistulas caused by obstructed childbirth will be considered. And no, that does not include genital mutilation. My heart hurts. The V.V.F. coordinator will email, will see if we can squeeze the unexpected into the tightly woven mesh of grant money. I wish the person sitting in an office across the oceans knew that we would meet this woman.

I memorize her name and age to ensure that I won’t forget her. She makes her way into my prayers often. My mother and father ask about her during each phone call. After good days, when I am finally alone in my room and my heart has the space to be heard, I weep for her. There is grief everyday at the eye clinics, so many helpless cases, but it is this woman who has irreversibly stitched herself into my heart.

A month and a half passes. The email has finally come. The answer is no. No, we cannot operate on a fistula caused by genital mutilation. No, an extra donation will not help. No, she cannot be fit into the program’s structure. No.

But this woman, she is waiting! She is hoping! We should call her, try to get a more thorough medical history. The V.V.F. coordinator agrees. Her heart aches too, I am sure.

The next day, the quest begins. This woman lives in northern Benin and speaks Adja. There is only one translator I find who speaks Adja–and it is our own beloved Pierre! We take a break during the clinic that morning to phone the contact number. The woman is not there, a man’s voice says. She works out in the fields all day long, and will be back near the phone at 4 pm.

We return to the ship at 1, and Pierre insists on staying so that we can call her together. He waits in the heat, on the dock, for three hours. If we can save her life, he says, it is worth anything.

We phone at 4. And at 4:10. And 4:15 and 4:17 and 4:20 and 4:30. And the next day. She is never there, always in the fields. After multiple days of attempts, the man at the phone says that he will bring her to Togo. If there is any chance, he says, it is worth it. “Do not come to the ship!” We say. “We just need to ask her some questions.”

But he is stubborn, as all true friends are. The very next day, as I peruse the markets downtown, my phone rings. Not only have the man and the woman come to Lome, but they are waiting for us on the dock! Head spinning, we jump in a taxi to head home. I call Pierre, and he drops everything to make his way to the port. “But I told them not to come!” I think to myself.

The twenty-minute drive has never felt longer, but finally we arrive at the gates, pay the driver, and make our way through the semis and containers towards the ship. And there she is! Even from a distance it is apparent that she sits a bit taller, looks up instead of down. Her dress and head scarf are blue with bright orange flowers, and look freshly pressed: she has come wearing her best (or maybe a neighbor’s best). She carries only a plastic bag, filled with belongings for the journey. What joy to see her again–but also dread. I fear that the news we have for her will be bad–news that what she so desperately wants we cannot give. It would have been easier to tell her this over the phone.

I page Maggie, the V.V.F. coordinator, tell her I’m sorry to pull her out of bed when she is on night shift, but that our very special woman is waiting at the bottom of the gangway. She and I are equally overwhelmed that they are here in Lome, and that they somehow bypassed two points of port security.

The medical history begins, and this time in earnest. Have you ever been pregnant? Yes. How many times? Once. What happened? They cut my tummy to get the baby out. (She draws a line from her naval down.) Was it a doctor who cut you? Yes. How long were you in labor? One day.

So she was not mutilated–Praise the Lord! But then, just as quickly as I have hope, it evaporates. She has had a c-section. She only labored for one day. She was cared for at a hospital, by a real doctor.

But she has traveled far to be here–nine hours, in fact–so we will hold onto an iota of hope and continue the questions. Do you leak urine constantly? Yes. Is the bed wet when you wake up in the morning? Yes. How long have you been leaking? Eight years. How long were you in labor? One day. Did the baby die? Yes.

One day, and then a c-section. With each detail, the hope for fistula surgery fades.

And then, unprompted and for whatever reason, Pierre adds another bit of information. A bit that the woman told him before I arrived, something that has not seemed worth mentioning, but Pierre figures might be of slight interest: “She was also in labor for five days before she went to the hospital.”

With tears in my eyes and a huge smile, I turn to Maggie–FIVE DAYS!!! That’s the golden ticket!! Her fistula did result from obstructed labor!

Never have my spirits soared so high to hear such terrible news!


The evening ends joyously. Lauren and I bring out plates of tuna and sausages and french fries from the dining room, and we all sit quietly on the dock and watch the sky fade from cobalt to indigo. The woman sits on the ground and props her plate on her knees. A sea breeze rolls in, replacing the day’s sweltering humidity. Serenity.

A Mercy Ships car arrives to bring the woman and the man to our hospitality center. They can stay the night there before their long journey home. Maggie gives her a plastic bedsheet and four adult diapers: two for tomorrow, and two for next month. She has an appointment to return to the ship, when the V.V.F. surgeon will be here to examine all the women.

The night glows in a brilliant array of stars. The car door closes, and I wave goodbye to my beautiful Jesus.

We will call her Kpely. Please join me in praying for Kpely. Pray for her journey to Togo in May. Pray that her fistula is operable. Pray that she has the chance to once again feel human.


9 Responses to “Kpely”

  1. paul rutherford said

    wow. Alana. That is moving. Thank you for sharing Kpely’s story with me. Even if you were ambivalent about blogging her story, I’m so glad you did. Thanks, Alana.

  2. Jon said

    Remember that Christ wasn’t just operating through this woman to open your heart. He flowed through you too, as He continues to do each day. Every connection is a precious gift, and I am so proud that you saw this one through to fulfillment.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been more glad to be your friend than I am at this moment. You rock, Alana.

  3. Patti said

    Wow- Thank you for sharing this. You have moved me beyond words. Patti

  4. Martha said

    I found your blog for the first time this morning and am moved beyond words. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    blessings to you,

  5. Whistler said

    I read the beginning, & now I want to hear it in person…along with MANY more stories 🙂
    early happy birthday S Alana!

  6. Linda Barstow said

    Your Mom has told me of your blog beccause you and i share an interest in Africa. I find your expression of your experiences beautiful and your faith inspiring. Please drop by our house when you get home…

  7. Shanthi jayakumar said

    Of all the posts that I have read so far,this one tops all for poignancy. I was crying inside as I read the story and then felt jubilation as the story offered some hope for the woman. What a miracle.
    You deserve the BIGGEST HUG right now.

  8. Dan said

    Kpely is one of the many reasons God picked you and the rest of the Mercy Ship volunteers to be in Togo. Thank you for serving the world’s most needy and often forgotten poor.
    God bless you.

  9. liz cantu said

    wow. thank you for sharing this story.

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