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 paediatric anaesthetist, anaesthesia 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 on board 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 paediatric anaesthetist, 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 paediatric 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.
Meanwhile, Ann had phoned a professor friend of hers in Nairobi and explained that she needed a paediatric 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.
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.
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 paediatric anaesthetist 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.