The malignant tumour

Documentary, Mercy Ships, Photojournalism

Essentially my job with the Mercy Ships is photographer in their PR department. I take the sort of photographs that show what we do to encourage donors. As I’ve said before the donors are key in keeping the charity alive and generally the sort of photographs and stories needed are of the successful surgery that completely transforms someone’s life. I’m not saying we swing towards that in a bias way. That happens with 99% of the patients that come through. I don’t feel that is in any way an exaggeration. But as always with photography I’m attracted to the subjects and stories that stray away from the norm.

The Mercy Ships have a palliative care unit to look after terminally ill patients that surgery would not have worked on. There’s a humanity in these actions that I’m desperate to capture, and I had my first attempt last week.

Ayabavi Fiodegbekou is a tiny grandmother in her 50’s or 60’s. She has had a tumour growing on her face for 18 years, and came out of hiding to attend the screening at the beginning of the the Togo field service. A biopsy and CT scan showed the tumour to be malignant and inoperable. Harriet Molyneux, Alex Williams and their translator Sylvie are part of the Palliative Care Program.  There aren’t as many terminally ill patients on the Togo field service than there were last year in Benin, so the team can afford to venture out further affield to patients houses that they normally wouldn’t because of time constraints. So every Wednesday they visit Ayabavi in her home town of Vogan, an hour or so outside of Lomé and have been doing so for three months  now.

“Our goal with this program is to meet weekly with the patients and be a bright spot in their week. We pray with them, talk to them, and help ease their pain by giving them medication and dietary advice” Harriet says. “She seems to be a lot more peaceful about [her situation] now. We also give her pain relief and talk through any issues she might be having”.

The team takes advantage of as many local resources as she can because at the end of the Togo field service Ayabavi will be on her own without a source for pain medication. The Morenga tree is a natural dietary supplement that is packed with vitamins, protein and carbohydrates. Ayabavi crushes the leaves and drinks the liquid to provide essential nutrients which are lacking in her diet.

When asked how her life has changed as a result of the palliative care program Ayabavi states “Without it I would be already deadI get excited every Wednesday. It helps make my life better. Before they started coming I was ashamed and those around me would hold their nose because I smelled bad. Now, their treatment has helped make the smell go away.”

Ayabavi’s daughter, Tante (behind her mother above), has seen a visible change in her mother since Palliative Care started coming to see her. Tante says, “I can tell that she feels more comfortable being around others. Before, she never had the confidence to sit among a group of people. Look at her now, sitting with a group of 10 people talking freely. They have truly transformed my mother’s life.”

The interview didn’t go without tears. A mixture of gratefulness to Harriet, Alex and Sylvie and the inevitable situation meant that obvious but necessary questions with obvious answers tugged at everyone’s heart and Sylvie the translator had to stop for a moment after Ayabavi expressed her sadness that Mercy Ships cannot be there until the end.

Mercy Ships is a Christian organisation, and though in no way forces it’s patients to become Christian, or choose not to treat them due to religious grounds (quite rightly of course) it encourages evangelising and telling those it looks after about God and the reasons that so many of its volunteers believe in Christianity. My witness of ‘quick conversions’ to Christianity back home has not always been a positive one in my opinion, but Ayabavi has begun studying the bible as a result of Mercy Ships, read to her once a week by a friend from church.

Ayabavi asked Silvie to read Phillipians 4:6:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” The words clearly touched and comforted her, and she smiled for the first time. Noone can deny that in this case the bible has only done good and helped preserve dignity at the end of this woman’s life.

The relief Ayabavi has received has transformed her and helped her cope with her inevitable death. Though the day will come when Harriet won’t be making weekly visits, Ayabavi chooses to focus on the assistance she’s been lucky to have.

I do not think that any hospital, anybody, any other person could do the help that they can do. They have helped me so much.

Ayabavi is surrounded by friends, family and grandchildren, the latter of which are often kept entertained by Alex (link included because you can’t see his face – sorry Alex) during the Wednesday visits.

Before leaving, the group pray with and for Ayabavi. Claire and I will return at some point before the end of the field service, meanwhile Harriet, Alex and Silvie will return each week to make sure  Ayabavi is getting the most out of life.

Much of the interview and some of this writing was done by my colleague, Claire Bufe.

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