Noma – no more: Aissa’s new face

Aissa when she arrived on the Africa Mercy in April 2010.
Aissa when she arrived on the Africa Mercy in April 2010.
Aissa as she heads home to greet village, family and a new life.
Aissa as she heads home to greet village, family and a new life.

Seven-year-old Aissa weighed 11 kg when she arrived onboard the Mercy Ship where a team of maxillo-facial surgeons reconstructed her face ravaged by noma, a flesh eating disease.

Walking down a street in Cameroon, West Africa, physician’s assistant Sarah Root noticed a little girl with a dirty rag wrapped around her head, covered in flies.

When Sarah uncovered Aissa’s face, she almost recoiled at the appalling sight. A wound extended from the child's right eye to her jaw and from the corner of her lip to her ear. A hole gaped where the skin had been eaten away, and swelling closed her right eye.

Noma! A flesh-eating disease born of poverty - unclean drinking water, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, lack of immunizations, and lack of medical care. Noma’s victims are children, often attacking after childhood disease has weakened the immune system. If diagnosed immediately and treated with antibiotics, noma can be stopped. If untreated, effects are permanent or fatal. An estimated half million cases are reported yearly, mainly in the poorest countries of West Africa, and 90% of noma victims die within a month.

With Sarah’s intervention, Aissa is one of the 10% who survived. However, at seven years old and weighing only 11 kg, she had a fragile hold on life. Hospitalized, her grandmother and uncle stayed with her because her parents had abandoned her when she became ill.

Doctors removed the infected part of Aissa’s cheek and put her on a feeding tube. Within four months, she gained weight and began to blossom in an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

Abigail Boys, a general surgeon volunteering at the hospital in Cameroon, had worked with Mercy Ships’ Chief Maxillofacial Surgeon, Dr. Gary Parker, in previous Mercy Ships field services. She knew that Aissa could get the reconstructive surgery she needed on the Africa Mercy and helped Aissa, Sarah, and her uncle travel to the ship in Lomè, Togo. Three surgeons - Dr. Gary, Dr. Tertius, and Dr. Tony - performed the reconstructive surgeries.

During Aissa’s month-long recovery, she demonstrated a strong character - and a strong will. Immersed in new surroundings where other children in the ward could not speak her language, she often illustrated her frustration by throwing temper tantrums.

But eventually her defenses melted. Aissa made friends and began to play games, color and join the singing. She even learned some English phrases and often hugged the nurses, while shouting, „I love you!“

Aissa will need one more surgery to complete the reconstruction of her face. But, for now, she has returned to her village to be reacquainted with family and friends and school life!

And she can teach them another English phrase she learned onboard the Mercy Ship, „I AM BEAUTIFUL!“