The plane’s shadow followed the trail of the Congo River to the wide Atlantic – to the ship, they said, that offered free surgery. Vivianne held tightly to the two government-purchased travel tickets as she prayed for her wide-eyed, beautiful daughter, Ravette, who sat beside her and stared out the window with fascination.

Maybe, just maybe, the ship would save Ravette. And, in the process, it would save Vivianne, too.

The two have travelled light. They left much behind – the disappointment over the lack of medical care; the brutal breaking of Ravette’s legs by the traditional medicine man; the lifelong ridicule; the helplessness; the hopelessness – all of this was too heavy to pack.

Ravette has lived her eleven years of life with a deformity known as genu recurvatum, which loosely translates as “backward-bending knee.” It is a congenital dislocation of the knee. Ravette struggled to walk, to sit in a car or chair, to climb a staircase, and even to attend school.

The most remarkable thing about Ravette is not her deformity. It is her beautiful, ever-constant smile. No matter what goes on, even if it’s painful or tedious, Ravette is always smiling.

This glowing smile illuminated her face when she met Dr. Frank Haydon, a Mercy Ships volunteer orthopedic surgeon from the United States. Dr. Frank smiled back as he cast an expert eye over her legs and made his assessment: “At this age, the knees are now deformed and won’t bend normally, but we can make them straight.”

Ravette and Vivianne were shown before-and-after images of a boy named Abel, who came to the ship during the Togo field service. Abel had the same severe case of genu recurvatum. They watched a video of Abel walking down a hallway with straight legs. “It was then that I believed my daughter could really be saved,” said Vivianne.

Prior to surgery, Ravette’s legs were placed in the first of a series of specialty orthopedic casts that would gradually stretch her legs. This process would increase the bendability in her soon-to-be-straightened legs.

Surgery has since come and gone for Ravette. Hobbling around the wards with her crutches, she is always finding ways to have fun. Whether she’s playing with the Paint program on an old computer or mimicking her crew friends’ English in a singsong voice – “I’m fine, ow are yooouu?” – she creates smiles and laughter.

There are many more steps ahead on Ravette’s road to recovery. Gradually and progressively, casts and braces will be removed until the bones are strong enough for Ravette to walk with straight legs and no assistance.

You may be wondering what’s next for Ravette and her mother as they board another plane to go home. Ravette is clear about her plans for the future, as she states firmly, “I want to find a job in an office working on a computer. I will be a boss!”

And then she adds, “But, first, I will tell other people who suffer to come on the ship to be saved like me.”

Her mother smiles and replies, “Yes, and so they can be saved like me, too.”

Yes, step by step, cast by cast, Ravette is making her way to a brighter future.