Thursday, November 12, 2009

Esperance: A lasting transformation

Story and photos by Megan Petock (me)

Laura Rawson was standing amidst the hundreds of people in line outside the Hall des Artes stadium in Cotonou,Benin. Mercy Ships was hosting a large-scale screening day to schedule patients for surgery during the 2009 Field Service. Laura was busy triaging potential patients when she heard an excited voice yelling, "Laura! Laura! Laura!"

"I looked over and saw this woman standing at the front of the line, waving her hands and calling out my name," said Rawson. "At first, I didn't recognize her. But then she said, 'It's Esperance.' I have only ever known one Esperance. As soon as she said her name, I went over and gave her a huge hug. I couldn't believe it was her."

Rawson first met Esperance in June 2006, while serving as a ward nurse on the Anastasis during a field service in Ghana. "Esperance had come to our screening day," she said. "I remember she was wearing a small hat and using a lappa to hide herself."

Esperance had been hiding for over a year. In December 2005, while sleeping in her home, she was awakened by her husband in the middle of the night. He was standing over their bed with a cup of acid. He poured the acid all over her body and then drank the rest, killing himself.

The acid burned the skin around her neck, arms, and torso, leaving many of her nerve endings exposed. For weeks, Esperance was in constant, non-relievable pain. When the burns finally began to heal, things only got worse. Severe contractures formed on her arms and neck, leaving them completely immobilized. Esperance was unable to do simple things like cook and bath herself. "At that time I was feeling very bad. All the skin was stuck together, and I could not move my arm or neck. Everything was hurting," she said. Grotesque scars covered her face and made her feel ashamed. People would stare and laugh at her when she went out in public. Wanting to stay hidden, she draped a piece of fabric over her head whenever she left her home.

Deep emotional scarring accompanied her physical wounds. Esperance had been betrayed by the man who had promised to protect and love her. "When my husband poured the acid, he knew what he was doing. He hurt me very badly and has caused me very great pain," said Esperance. "Since that time, it's like men are not men anymore. I have a hard time trusting them."

At the Ghana screening day, Esperance was scheduled for plastic surgery. When she arrived on the Anastasis, she was withdrawn and depressed. "When she first came, she didn't want anyone to touch her and refused to talk to anyone. All day, she lay in bed with a sheet covering her, hiding her face the entire time. It was obvious that she was in a lot of pain - physically and emotionally. She was so hurt from what her husband had done," said Rawson.

A Mercy Ships surgeon performed an operation to release the contractures on her neck and arms. Esperance spent many weeks on the ward while her wounds slowly healed. At that time, a special friendship began growing between Rawson and Esperance. "She was with us for a long time. I wanted her to know she was loved. At some point, I started rubbing cream on her back three times a day. I used to sing, 'It Is Well With My Soul,' when I did this. Later, she told me that small act gave her a real peace," said Rawson.

Slowly, Esperance began to trust the nursing staff. She stopped hiding under her sheets and greeted the nurses by name when they began their shifts. When she finally left the Anastasis, she was a completely different woman.

"When she came, her level of trust for other people was pretty low. The person she should have trusted most did that to her and then killed himself. But she totally transformed on the ward. She went from not talking to anyone or interacting with others, to saying hello and knowing our names. When she left, she seemed to have a lot of confidence in herself and how she looked," said Rawson.

The transformation continued after her discharge. When Esperance came to the February 2009 Benin screening day, instead of hiding under a piece of fabric, she was visible and smiling. Although physical scars remained, the love she'd received on the Anastasis had given her the confidence in herself to be joyful.

In Benin, Esperance received a second surgery to further release her neck and arms. She immediately sought out Rawson. Three year's after their first meeting, Esperance still remembered her kindness. "In Ghana, when I was having my pain and everything was hurting, Laura took really good care of me. She made me feel very comfortable and happy. I was really lonely at home - but on the ship, people loved me and were taking care of me," said Esperance. Their friendship was rekindled, and it has deepened Rawson's appreciation of the impact Mercy Ships has on individual lives.

"Not having any contact for almost three years and still having this level of relationship made me see the impact we can have on people's lives. It has given me more confidence to know that there are many patients like Esperance that have totally changed. It's not just a physical change, but an emotional and spiritual transformation. Esperance still has very ugly burns on her face and body, but she has confidence and values herself as a person because she knows she is loved. God has healed the scars on the inside through our caring for her on the ward. It's an amazing privilege to be a part of that transformation."

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