A tiny nine-year-old struggled into the Mercy Ships admissions tent. Her legs were so curved and out of shape that they seemed to be folded beneath her and could no longer hold her upright. This tiny nine-year-old was Fifalina.
Fifalina was born with normal legs, but as she grew and started to walk her mother, Ludvine, noticed that she fell often and that her legs were beginning to curve.
Fifalina’s family were not wealthy and her father had to find work each day to provide for his family, but they managed to scrape together enough money to take their daughter to see a doctor. He told them the little girl needed calcium and said there was nothing more he could do.
Her desperate parents sought help from a traditional healer. The healer massaged Fifalina’s legs, but this did not help. Nothing they could do was working, and her legs continued to weaken and bend.
Their bright little girl was eager to attend school despite the ever-increasing physical challenge. Initially, Fifalina could walk the 30 minutes to school. However, as her legs worsened she could not get to school without help.
“Her curved legs were getting worse and worse,” Ludvine recalls. “She fell down at school. After that, her legs were really curved, and her knees could not support her.”
So, from then on Ludvine carried her daughter on her back to and from school every day. But school wasn’t always a pleasant experience for Fifalina. Unable to play with the other children, Fifalina felt left behind and she dreamed of being healed and being able to play with her schoolmates.
Then her family’s desperate hopes and Fifalina’s dream began to become reality. They heard of a hospital ship providing free surgery onboard.
The family learned of a patient screening nearby. She was examined by the Mercy Ships screening team and referred for treatment on the Africa Mercy.
Mercy Ships consultant Dr Frank Haydon performed a series of complex orthopaedic surgeries, correcting Fifalina’s twisted upper and lower legs by rotating her bones through more than 200 degrees. A series of pins now holds her knees and hips in alignment. After surgery, Fifalina was enveloped in full-leg plaster casts that weighed almost as much as she did.
Throughout, Fifalina showed her amazing determination and strength. Time and time again during her procedures, Fifalina smiled, bit her lip, and pushed through a pain-barrier that would make an adult whimper.
When her leg casts were first removed, Fifalina declared, “I’m going to learn to walk again!” Ludvine gasped and shed tears when she first saw her daughter’s straight little legs.
Months of splints and physical therapy followed Fifalina’s surgery as she bravely relearned to walk. Her muscles, weak from years of disuse, were retrained by a team of volunteer physiotherapists. Daily routines were performed with peals of laughter and entertaining activities.
“If her legs were left like they were, I think she would end by walking on her knees,” said Ludvine. “Our problem would get worse and worse. I would not be able to carry her on my back. Now she will be able to walk and just hold my hand!”
Finally, the day arrived when Fifalina could achieve her milestone tasks unaided – balancing on one leg, walking with one foot in front of the other, and standing on tiptoes. All things that her schoolmates could do without thinking, but for little Fifalina these were truly challenging; not so anymore.
Ludvine thinks Fifalina would make a great teacher when she grows up, but the Mercy Ships crew members will tell you that Fifalina is already an inspiration.
“I believed they could fix my legs!” exclaims Fifalina. “I said to myself, ‘Let's just go there, and we will see.’”