I was running. I thought I was running home and running late but as I reached the village of Ngolala I realised I was running towards something else. I was running to Mary Lahai, a seventeen year old girl I had met a month before, the most emaciated hand I have ever held. Mary had a mysterious mass in her stomach, something which caused her extreme pain and, as I found out much later, made it difficult for her to hold down food. I was running with my friend Andy (yes the same Andy I always mention), three other friends had beaten us to it and another would shortly join. In one of the many moments of providence that would punctuate a desperate story we would all converge at the point where we were most needed. We found Mary writhing in agony on the front porch of her home.
Having made quick arrangements with the extended family she was staying with we took Mary to the COTN clinic. Andy lifted my dying friend in his arms and carried her through the village. People watched us from their verandas, themselves frozen into inaction by a perceived inability, indifference or a type of triage. Mary was either hopeless, infectious or a witch. Rain ensured that the atmosphere matched the mood. Then, perhaps because pain and fear had prevented it before, from over Andy’s shoulder Mary seemed to see me for the first time. She called my name with a smile and, just for a second, her eyes brightened.
As my friends and I carried Mary we prayed and sang to our God, not an act of saintly piety and more than an effort to comfort Mary and ourselves, we were reminding ourselves of our hope at a moment when heart break was wearing it thread bare and threatening to let desperation crash through. We pleaded with the great physician to heal, a prayer that would spread from Sierra Leone in the months to follow and be taken up by God’s children in the UK and America.
Although we did not fully appreciate it as we carried Mary through the rain, we were actually mirroring a scene that had been played out about two months before. Then Mary had been found by Samuel and Elijah, two COTN-SL staff members, abandoned to die in a hut. They too had carried Mary in their arms to the clinic and we were following their example of love. But Mary’s situation was a complicated one. She needed an expensive operation in Bo, a city three and a half bumpy hours drive away. She needed to be strong enough to survive that procedure and she needed to have someone to care for her before and after. And such was the nature of Mary’s condition and the equipment available here that we would not be able to tell what was really wrong until Mary was on the operating table. During a period of time when the COTN Country Director and clinic staff were trying to work with Mary’s family to come up with a course of action, I sat on the dark, dirt floor of Mary’s hut. I rubbed her back and sang to her while she rocked back and forward in pain and vomited. Her mother sat in the dirt beside me weeping and pointing out worms in the vomit with a stick. In the end it would only be Mary’s mother of all her family members that would stick by her but she was unable to properly feed the two of them when they were at home let alone finance a lengthy stay in a strange city. When the two finally set off for Bo they were helped immeasurably by Elijah who brought back the wonderful news that an extended family member had been found in the city who was willing to take them in. We rejoiced at the Lord’s provision. In a twist however this relative would have a change of heart and within two days had thrown Mary and her mother in to the street. So often in Mary’s story however desperation would be met with hope, ugliness matched by beauty. The family living right next door to Mary’s relative, complete strangers, brought in this small family and would care for them, offering food, shelter and a hand to hold at the hospital, for the next three months.
It would take about that long for Mary, with the proper treatment, to build up enough strength to face the surgeon’s knife. Before she started to improve she got terribly depressed and in the depth of one particularly hopeless low she tried to slit her wrists. But with time she got stronger and her spirits were lifted. Money came from Sierra Leone, America and Northern Ireland. Then, when all the tests had been done, the numerous doctors seen and the operation finally scheduled, Mary decided that she needed no further treatment. Effective care had made her feel so much better that she believed that she had been healed. “I can work. I can run. I can jump. Before I couldn’t do any of those things.” I made an emergency trip to Bo with our clinic’s head nurse and along with a wonderfully patient and understanding surgeon, broke the unpleasant news. Without surgery, Mary would die.
I had just finished a youth event and the setting sun had splashed red and gold across the sky. My phone rang. I did my best to measure Dr. Vandi’s words with thoughts of “There’s still a long way to go” but, maybe truly for the first time, I allowed the dream of Mary’s recovery to finally come in to full focus, to joyfully wash over me. “She’s stable. The surgery was a real success. We were very lucky really. We found a huge puss-filled abscess behind her spleen. It’s amazing that it never burst!”
A few weeks later Mary and her mother walked in to the COTN office in Ngolala to tell us they were home. With money that was left over after all her medical bills were paid we arranged for Mary to start back at school. She has a long way to go but on the thirteenth of January 2009 she was a vision in her old school blue amidst a crowd of Mallory Jansen Primary School green.
At one point of fear and confusion when Mary was sick she found my face at the other side of a crowded room. Our eyes met and, stretching out her hand, she called my name. Mary’s story will change my life for as long as I let it but it isn’t one I can tell and finish with a full stop. Mary isn’t a character in a story, she’s a girl that lives down the road from me. She largely lives off the generosity of her neighbours, the desperate leening on the needy. And just as she cried out to me before, demanding a response from one who claims to be the child of the God who is love, so her daily struggles in the here and now call for my response. And maybe yours too. What that is and will be is a big question but, for me, one thing is certain. In the words of a recent American visitor to COTN-SL, “I’ll never forget and I’m telling everyone.”