It’s impossible to be angry with Vernel because he’s just too cute – and now he knows it!

Vernel’s story begins in a fishing village eight hours from Congo’s port city of Pointe Noire. The cleft on the right side of his upper lip revealed his pink gums and front teeth as it stretched toward his nostril. Vernel was bullied for looking different, his dad says. The other children in their village teased him to the point that he would come home crying. Who could possibly have the heart to make Vernel cry?

Vernel’s father brought him to the Africa Mercy. In an environment where people with cleft lips are embraced, Vernel quickly came into his own. He never had to worry about being teased; the crew loved on Vernel from the moment he stepped into the Admissions Tent. We made him balloons, we let him play with the Djembe drums, and we discovered that he is a clown in front of the camera. On this ship in Africa, Vernel finally found his audience: 350 people who have eyes to see beyond his deformity. By the time surgeons repaired Vernel’s cleft lip, he’d forgotten he had it.

Vernel’s village had no idea what they were in for. When it was time for Vernel to be discharged, he called his grandmother to tell her he was coming home. “I’m a handsome boy now,” he said. Vernel was patched up from the inside out.

Vernel was not the first (or the last) patient to undergo a transformation here. But history will remember the 350 people on board the Africa Mercy in Congo as the enablers of The Vernel Effect. It was because of them he realised his charm, and through them he developed his knack for launching tickle attacks. Consider yourself warned.