After 56 years with a cleft lip, it took just a two-hour surgery to change Samba’s life.
Samba, a widower with four children, worked as a cattle farmer in rural Senegal, where he faced discrimination due to his lifelong condition.
He had grown used to his cleft lip drawing unwanted attention. Physical attacks were so commonplace that Samba lost count how often it happened.
“What is it like to walk around and be worried about how people will respond to your face? What sort of burden is that?” wondered Dr. David Chong, the volunteer surgeon from Australia who would later operate on Samba.
Eventually, the pandemic allowed Samba to hide his lips behind a mask. He conveyed his smile through a warm handshake and the crow’s feet around his eyes. This was the Samba who introduced himself on the Global Mercy™ when he came on board to receive free surgery.
“You can see the pain in his eyes from a lot of experiences he’s had in his life, but what particularly struck me about him was that he had this intrinsic sense of self-worth,” Dr. Chong said, in contrast to many other adults whose cleft lips he had repaired over the years. “He was so engaging. He wanted to tell you a story. He wanted to know more about you, and he wanted to interact with everyone.”
For Samba, being on board the Global Mercy was a unique experience. “The first time I got on board the ship, I was so scared,” he said. Samba took the full tour, and on the upper deck of the hospital ship, he looked upon his nation’s capital with a new perspective and wept.
While waiting for surgery, Samba reflected on his journey, recounting a lifetime of teasing and self-loathing. “People used to tell me things that I cannot even explain,” he shared. “I’ve missed a lot in life.”
It was like other patient stories that Dr. Chong had heard in his decades of regularly volunteering with Mercy Ships.
However, he usually wasn’t hearing these stories from patients with cleft lips. In Australia, as in many western countries, most cleft lips would be repaired by the time an infant celebrated their
first birthday. “You come to a place like Senegal, and you meet someone who’s 56 years old who’s got an unrepaired cleft lip—wow, how did this happen? How did you get to this age?”
Ultimately, says Dr. Chong, the issue all comes down to access. Five billion people lack access to surgical care that is safe, affordable, and timely. “You can’t believe that that could happen on planet earth in 2023, but it does,” he reflected. This reality drives Mercy Ships’ mission to bring life-changing hope and healing, in the model of Jesus.
Day of the Surgery
On the morning of Samba’s life-changing surgery, Dr. Chong took a moment to share an important message: “We can see your heart. No matter how you look, you are a very good man.”
Samba had only heard the opposite for 56 years, but this day was different.
“I never thought that one day, my lips would be repaired,” Samba said. But that day had come.
“Your soul is strong and special, and it is finally time,” Dr. Chong told Samba. “I had to fly over 24 hours here, and if it was just to meet you and do this surgery, then it was well worth it.”
Samba was solemn as Dr. Chong outlined the operation. A national crewmember named Bocar Sy reassured Samba in their shared language of Pulaar that he didn’t need to stay so still, despite being attached to an intravenous drip, and Samba relaxed, giggling. Dr. Chong asked if Samba would like the surgery to preserve his omnipresent “spear” tooth that peeked through his cleft lip. Looking at Dr. Chong incredulously, Samba mimicked ripping out the tooth that had defined him for so long.
“I am crying because I am very joyful—I am not sad,” Samba clarified. “Everything is going to be all right, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
The Other Side
“What I remember about the surgery is when someone came to wake me up. They woke me up and informed me that the surgery was finished,” Samba recounted. “I didn’t feel any pain.”
The next day, Samba sat in his hospital bed with newfound dignity, crying tears of joy whenever he looked in the mirror. He could not believe his eyes.
Asked if he was ready for photographs, Samba joked with his hands over his mouth, “I won’t smile! I have been given a good gift, and I want to take care of it, and let it heal perfectly.”
“There is undoubtedly a change in his eyes,” Dr. Chong marveled. “It’s just the soul coming through his eyes as he realizes who he is—maybe not even who he is, but who people can see him to be now.”
Two weeks after his surgery, Samba was sent home from the floating hospital. Dr. Chong speculated, “I think he’ll unleash. He’s already got such a vibrant personality. He’s going to make sure he’s caught up on a lot of lost time.”