There was much excitement on board the Global Mercy™ recently as a young woman named Hawa climbed up the gangway.
Hawa, an aspiring nurse from Sierra Leone, had never set foot on this brand-new hospital ship. But she has walked this swaying path over the water before.
Hawa boarded the first Mercy Ship, the Anastasis, as a small child, when a tumor was slowly encroaching on her ability to eat and breathe. It was there that her life was saved, and a new dream was born. This year, Hawa’s journey to hope and healing came full circle as she reunited with Mercy Ships once more.
When Hawa was a young girl, a tumor began to grow in her mouth. It was not cancerous. But it was far from harmless. “At that time, I was scared,” she remembered. After just two years, the fast-growing tumor was threatening Hawa’s life. She had to take small meals through a straw. “It was coming to a point in time where I could not eat anymore,” she said. “Even drinking was difficult for me. Even to talk was difficult.”
Hawa would stay inside, crying, refusing to show her face outside. The people around her began to give up hope. “Even me,” she said. “Because I think there is no life for me anymore, because the tumor was just swelling up, swelling up. … Everybody was thinking, ‘She’s just waiting for her time to go.’”
Finding Hope on Board
Hawa’s father tried to find someone who could help his daughter. He found that local doctors could not perform the necessary surgery. Then, a friend connected him to Mercy Ships. In 2005, he traveled with Hawa to the Anastasis, where doctors examined her and determined that she needed an operation right away.
“Everybody was coming around me, encouraging me,” she said, recalling that first experience on the ship. “They’d say, ‘Don’t lose hope, don’t worry.’” When Hawa came on board, she stopped being afraid. She believed that things were about to get better – and they did.
Dr. Gary Parker, longtime Mercy Ships volunteer maxillofacial surgeon, removed Hawa’s tumor. Hawa still remembers how her father responded when he saw her. “He was so happy, just dancing, ‘Oh, God, thank you,’” she said. “We were just celebrating, rejoicing.”
When Hawa returned home, her friends did not even recognize her. “They said, ‘This is Hawa?’” she laughed as she remembered. “I said, ‘This is Hawa.’ … Those that had lose hope on me, said ‘She can’t make it,’ who were seeing me at that point in time, said ‘Wow.’”
After her experience on the ship, Hawa’s path became clear. “My dad looked at me and said, ‘You have to become a nurse too, so that you can save others’ life as they did for you.’”
Hawa’s father passed away shortly after witnessing his daughter’s miracle. She decided to make his dream her own and started on the long road to becoming a nurse. “My family will be happy when I become a nurse because that has always been their prayer,” she shared.
Returning to the Ship
In 2011, Hawa made another visit to the ship, this time boarding the new vessel, the Africa Mercy®, when it sailed into Freetown. She reunited with Dr. Gary Parker and even met the president and vice president of Sierra Leone. Dr. Parker showed the gathered audience a photo of the tumor that had almost taken Hawa’s life. He didn’t need to show an “after” photo, though. She was right there, evidence of a miracle.
Hawa received a standing ovation.
In 2023, she once again had the chance to reunite with crewmembers who had been part of her life-changing experience, like long-time volunteer Rachel Greenland.
“At the time Hawa was on board, I worked at the pediatric ward so I would see her and her father,” remembered Rachel. “It’s a great privilege for me to see her here today. We talk a lot about the impact of the work but seeing her here shows you what’s possible. This is why I keep coming back.”
During Hawa’s tour of the Global Mercy, she encountered another familiar face – Clementine Tengue, who greeted her with a warm hug. Clementine, who works in the hospital chaplaincy department, remembers Hawa and her father well. “I was there when Hawa and her dad were on board. I walked with them the entire process,” she said. “This is the definition of hope, her getting surgery and now wanting to help people too by becoming a nurse.”
For Hawa, the welcome on board felt deeply familiar. “The way they showed me love reminded me of how it was when I was on the other ship when I was a child. They showed me love then they took care of me.”
‘Take a Look at Me Now’
Today, at 23 years old, Hawa sees her Mercy Ships surgery as a turning point. Once her tumor was removed, she was no longer isolated from her community. “When I came back home, everybody was coming around me, everyone was rejoicing with me,” she said.
But Hawa knows it was not just her quality of life that was saved. It was her life itself. “If I wasn’t having the surgery, I don’t think I would be alive,” she said. “Maybe I should have been dead and gone.”
Hawa is now studying hard in her journey to becoming a nurse. Some days she gets up at 2 a.m. to do her schoolwork, then heads for the bus at 5 a.m. She pushes herself so that she can pass along the healing she found nearly two decades ago.
“That gave me the inspiration to become a nurse, so that I can save life, too,” she said. There’s another dream that Hawa harbors in her heart: to one day serve with Mercy Ships as a nurse, alongside Dr. Gary Parker and the others who helped give her life. “I will one day tell people about my life,” she said. “From the sickness to now. … That’s my dream.”
In the meantime, she’s excited that the Global Mercy is in Sierra Leone, helping others just like her. If there’s anyone who’s losing hope, like she was, Hawa believes they will find it again. “Let no one be ashamed of anything,” she said. “Let them come outside to show themselves, so that they can get help.”
After all, Hawa said, she’s living proof that hope is never lost: “Just take a look at me now.”