Two-year-old Josephine inhaled something that affected her breathing. Her parents, David and Judith, could hear the rattle with every struggling breath. They took her to a local clinic which sent them to an emergency hospital . . . which sent them to a government hospital . . . which sent them to a satellite clinic . . . which sent them back to the government hospital. After five days in the government hospital, specialist Dr. Karim Kabineh told them that Josephine was so tiny that she would die if he performed the necessary operation. He needed a pediatric anesthetist, anesthesia equipment, and a critical care unit with 24-hour nursing care – all unavailable at that hospital.
After eight days of hopeless searching for help, the desperate parents took Josephine to the office of the Minister of Health, where David hoped to plead his case and find someone who could help. At that moment – in the miracle of God’s timing – Ann Gloag, a member of the Mercy Ships International Board who is well-known for her charity work in Africa, was meeting with the Minister.
As this compassionate woman walked by the family sitting in the reception area, she heard the labored breathing of little Josephine. She put in a call to Dr. Gary Parker, Chief Medical Officer onboard the Africa Mercy, the hospital ship docked a short distance away in Freetown Harbor. After explaining to him what appeared to be the problem, arrangements were made to use an ambulance to transport Josephine, her parents and Dr. Kabineh to the ship.
Dr. Gary examined Josephine, took x-rays and discovered a small stone lodged in the little girl’s bronchus. A virtual think tank was begun to find a way to remove the stone from her tiny body. Dr.Gary approached engineering to see if a medical device could be fashioned that would be the right shape to fit into the bronchoscope and retrieve the stone. Every plausible idea was examined and eventually rejected.
Dr. Gary and Dr. Kabineh worked for five hours trying to remove the stone without success. Dr. Gary called Ann back to explain that what Josephine needed was a cardiac thoracic surgeon, and there wasn’t one on the ship. David was devastated. Mercy Ships was his last hope. But crew member Clementine Tengue encouraged him, saying, “God will find a way.”
Josephine was admitted to the intensive care unit with 24-hour care. About 3:00 am, ICU Nurse Melissa Warner was working the night shift when Josephine lost her breathing tube. Her vital signs were crashing. Dr. Michelle White, the pediatric *anesthetist/ anesthesiologist, was paged, but it would take her several minutes to respond. “In my mind, I said ‘I need help!’” Melissa said. “And when I looked up, there was Corina Buth standing in the doorway in her pajamas!” Corina, a pediatric ICU nurse from the Netherlands, had been restless and couldn’t sleep. Corina did CPR, and Josephine’s vital signs returned to normal. Then Dr. Michelle arrived and replaced the breathing tube.
Josephine’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. Analysis was made of the hospitals nearby. Ghana had the required surgeon, but he was absent at that time, and the travel expense to South Africa was prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Ann had phoned a professor friend of hers in Nairobi and explained that she needed a pediatric cardiac thoracic surgeon who could fly to Sierra Leone right away. The professor knew just the right man – Dr. James Munene, head of cardiac surgery at Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital. Although it was quite late, he phoned Dr. James, explained the problem and asked him to go to Sierra Leone to operate on Josephine.
“Wait!” Dr. James said, rather forcefully. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Just talk to this lady,” the professor responded.
Ann called a few minutes later and told the doctor he needed to fly immediately to Freetown where his skills were urgently needed.
“I was a bit reluctant,” said Dr. Munene. “I had never heard of Mercy Ships. I had no information on this case, and it was the middle of the night!”
“It was a little difficult to say no to the lady. I told my wife, ‘I guess I’m going to Sierra Leone in the morning,’” Dr. Munene said.
Then Dr. Gary called to say he was emailing information and x-rays of Josephine.
“I was thinking, ‘It’s not happening! It didn’t sound real!’ But by 1:00 a.m., I had the ticket and all the necessary papers ... and there I was at the airport at 6:00 a.m..,” explained Dr. James.
This confident specialist with the gentle demeanor landed at Lungi Airport, not yet totally comprehending the situation. And he still had to endure the bumpy boat ride across the bay to Freetown. “It was surreal!” he admitted.
Dr. James was overwhelmed by the Africa Mercy, the more than 400 crew members volunteering from 35 different countries, and the concept of bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor. He couldn’t believe such a mission could have been in operation for so many years, and he didn’t know anything about it.
Teaming with Dr. Gary, Dr. James operated on Josephine, fishing the stone out of her bronchus with ease. Because Josephine was so tiny, it was a vital requirement to have a pediatric anesthetist as part of the team. Dr. Michelle White was serving in this capacity at the time and was a vital part of the team. “Working with such a tiny body, I wouldn’t have proceeded without her,” said Dr. James.
Josephine awoke shortly after the surgery and sat up on the gurney all the way to the Intensive Care Unit, looking around and asking for a glass of water. To everyone’s surprise, she was anxious to eat right away. After a few days of recuperating in the ICU – and enjoying the attention of the nurses and other crew members – the little girl and her grateful parents left the ship
In reviewing this story, it is amazing to see the many things that had to happen for this tiny girl to survive. Her parents had to keep her alive for eight days after she inhaled the stone. Ann Gloag had to be visiting the office of the Minister of Health at the same time that David, Judith, and Josephine were there. Dr. James Munene had to agree to perform a surgery for an organization of which he had never heard; and Nurse Corina had to be drawn to the ICU because she couldn’t sleep. This incredible timing and all of these wonderful people were part of the miracle that allowed Josephine to grin happily as she left the Africa Mercy as a healthy little girl.
Dr. James was captivated by the mission and hopes to return to volunteer his services. “Really, it’s a privilege to come and see what people are doing while others are sleeping and doing nothing,” he said.
And God never sleeps – miracles still happen every day. Sometimes we are blessed to be a part of them.