Triumph and Tragedy

It’s been an absolutely exhausting 2 weeks, filled with both celebration and heart break.

It started off with us removing a giant sacrococcygeal teratoma from a baby girl.  This tumor was massive, making it difficult for her mother to even hold her.  We weren’t sure that we would be able to operate on her safely, but after discussing the case during a conference with pediatric surgeon Dr. Sherif Emil, we decided to proceed.

The operation went flawlessly.  This 4-month old baby went into surgery weighing 8.4 kg and ended up about 3 kg lighter!  It was unreal.  Seeing the mother’s face as she held her baby girl in the recovery room was absolutely priceless.  She continues to heal well.  We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.

High fives all around.  This is why I came to Mercy Ships.


Little did I know, darker days were right around the corner.

Last Tuesday, I was taking care of some children getting their hernias repaired.  It was supposed to be a rather straightforward day.  Suddenly, one of our anesthetic assistants came into our OR, saying that another anesthesiologist needed help down the hall.

Most of the time when someone asks for my help, it’s a quick fix.  Someone just needs an extra set of hands.  This time was different.  This time was every anesthesiologists’ worst nightmare.

I entered OR 5 to find a 4-year-old girl undergoing surgery for a tumor on her jaw, but something was terribly wrong.  Her heart had stopped suddenly during surgery.  We fought for an hour, trying everything we knew to do to get her back, all the while thinking, “How can this be happening?”  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her pulse came back.  The surgeon quickly closed her wound as we stabilized her, and we moved her to the ICU.

The anesthesiologists on board also serve as the intensive care doctors, so it was up to us to care for her after this catastrophic event.  Since it took an hour to get her circulation back, I knew her prognosis was extremely poor.  Sure, her heart was beating, but going that long without a pulse was bound to cause brain damage, and probably brain death.  But this is Mercy Ships.  This place is supposed to be special.  We are supposed to bring hope and healing.  The entire ship community prayed for a miracle.

Over the next two days, we continued aggressive treatment. One of our anesthesiologists from the UK, Tamryn, stayed up wih her most of the first night, keeping hope alive.  I took care of her the following day and night.

Despite our best efforts, our girl never woke up.  She died on Thursday.

We still don’t fully understand how this happened.  From a medical standpoint, our best guess was this was a massive embolism of some sort.  From a spiritual standoint, things are also unclear.  I know we live in an imperfect world, but I also know God is all-powerful and all-loving.  How could He let this happen?

When coming to Mercy Ships, I expected to be part of many joy-filled moments.  Moments of transformation and new beginnings.  I never expected to lose a 4-year-old girl.  A girl the same age as my Hannah.  I never expected to have to say to a mother, “As a father, I can’t even imagine the pain you are feeling.  I want you to know we have done absolutely everything we can to help your little girl, and our hearts are breaking with yours.”

This event crushed the morale of the OR.  Not only were we physically exhausted, but many went emotionally numb.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write a blog entry on last week’s events, but only sharing the feel-good moments seems dishonest.  Besides, even through all the pain, loss, and devastation, I have seen glimpses of God’s love for his children through this unique community that is the Africa Mercy.


Some examples:

While we were desperately working to keep this little girl alive, an overhead announcement went out to the entire ship, informing the crew of what was happening in the OR and asking people to stop what they were doing and pray.  I can’t even describe the feeling that came over me when I heard that, knowing that our entire crew of 400+ was lifting us up in prayer.

The way the OR team worked together, despite all of us coming from different hospitals around the world, and many not speaking English as their first language, was remarkable.

On the day it happened, everyone that was involved in her care got together in order to pray and process the emotions that were running through us.  This was separate from the After Action Review that occured on the following day.

Clementine, one of our hospital chaplains, was truly amazing.  It was her job to be there to support the mother.  She was the one that was constantly by her side.  Even when I got called by the ICU nurse at 2:00 am because the girl wasn’t doing well, Clementine was there with mom.  Clementine was the one who had to tell her that her little girl was not going to wake up.  She did this with wisdom, grace, and tenderness.

Once the girl passed away, our carpenters stayed up late into the night making a beautiful casket.  Our captain’s mother, who is serving with us short-term doing housekeeping, happened to have extra fabric and made a padded lining for the casket.  In addition, she had just purchased a dress at a local market for one of her grandchildren back home in Holland.  The dress fit our girl perfectly. When I spoke with one of the carpenters, Jordan, thanking him for making the casket, he simply said, “It was an honor.”

Mercy Ships arranged transportation for the mother’s brother to come to the ship to be a source of support.  This included a one-day drive, followed by a Mission Aviation Fellowship flight, and an 8-hour bus ride.

Mercy Ships also partnered with Helimission to transport the mother, uncle, and the girl’s remains to their remote village by helicopter.  This is an email excerpt from a local missionary named Matt:

The girl’s mom “told me, through tears, how well you cared for them throughout their time on board.  The girl’s uncle told us that you did so much for them, not least making all the transport arrangements (4×4, MAF, Helimission,…) and that you didn’t ask them to pay anything.  Ndrenasoa and Isidore also told me that the family and the village elders expressed much appreciation for all that you did for them in getting them back home, and the word they used was fitiavana (love); in doing all these things you have shown your love for this dear family, and by doing that you have shown many more people the love of God in you. 

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)”


We will never know this side of heaven why we lost this precious girl.  I can only pray that God would somehow use this for good.  That this family, and the remote village they live in, would indeed know God’s love.  

As my good friend Dr. Linds Sherriff, one of the hospital physicians on board, said, this will definitely leave a scar, but we cannot allow this wound to fester and remain open.  The result of that would be guilt, self-doubt, bitterness, and despair.  

Please pray.  First pray for the girl’s family as they continue to mourn.  That they would know the peace that surpasses all understanding.  And please pray for those of us on the Africa Mercy.  That although we have been deeply wounded,  a scar would form so that we may carry on the mission of bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.