After months and months of preparation, including logistical details, travel passports and visas, luggage, clothes, medical checks, hosting, and communication protocols, on Monday, August 26, 2019 the day finally arrived for 21-month-old Grace Koroma to undergo surgery to remove the teratoma tumor on her neck. Dr. Fred Grimmer, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist was the surgeon and the hospital was Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.
The surgery was scheduled for noon, but Lisa was asked to bring Grace and her mom, Rebecca, early so they could do an X-ray on Grace to ensure she did not have Tuberculosis. Living in a rural area and being poor, is a recipe for TB. We were so happy to hear that her lungs were clear so that she would not have to wear a mask while in the hospital to keep from potentially spreading this dreadful disease.
There were a few complications with communication in gathering all of the necessary information about Grace from her mother prior to the surgery. Rebecca’s English is improving, but still small when confronted with doctors asking question after question. The hospital supposedly had interpreters, but they must have spoken a different Krio from Rebecca as that did not seem to work. In the end, Lisa called Garrett Smith, one of the missionaries who traveled back with her from Sierra Leone, and he was able to help the nurses get the information they needed. Kudos to Garrett who was at the dentist when the call came and had to interrupt his dental appointment to be of assistance. Thank you Garrett!
At 1 pm, Grace was wheeled into the operating room and by 1:30 the surgery was underway. Lisa reported to us that the waiting room had a color-coded board. It was yellow while they were prepping her and then turned green when the procedure had started. Once the surgery was finished and she moved into recovery, it turned blue. We want to thank of those who prayed and fasted on behalf of little Grace. It was no small number of people. Rebecca was determined to exercise every ounce of faith she had, to do so she and Lisa began a fast on Saturday night and didn’t end it until after the surgery.
We received a call from Lisa sometime after 4 pm Mountain Daylight Time. It was shortly after 10:00 pm for us here in Sierra Leone. We had been prayerfully and anxiously waiting when she called, thinking about the miraculous journey over the last 4 months to finally bring her to this moment for which we had all been waiting and praying. What joy we had as she called to tell us that Dr. Grimmer had come out after the surgery and indicated that everything had gone well and he felt that he had removed all of the tumor without damaging the main nerves to the left shoulder or the voice box. He indicated he was able to remove it through a small 2” incision in Grace’s neck which he expects to be barely visible once healed. Surely our joy and gratitude for this huge blessing, recognizing that the most important part of the journey was now behind little Grace. It was a moment we will never forget.
We later learned that the tumor had impeded the growth of a portion of her thyroid gland. They will do a blood test on the 10th of September to test for the level triiodothyronine and thyroxine being produced. That will determine whether she will need to take levothyroxine to boost these hormones.
Interestingly Grace was never restricted on what she could eat from the moment she woke up. Considering the pressure the tumor was putting on her neck and throat area, combined with the surgery to remove it, we thought that was quite remarkable. The other thing that was quite remarkable was after being taken off of pain medication in the hospital, she never gave any signs of discomfort. This is one resilient little girl!
Shortly before the surgery ended, Rebecca had a special visitor. Sister Jean Bingham, the general Relief Society president stopped by to visit with Rebecca and check on Grace’s surgery. She had been there about 30 minutes when Dr. Grimmer came out to give Rebecca and Lisa the good news. Her timing was inspired and allowed her to share in Rebecca’s great joy. Sister Bingham met Rebecca and Grace in June when we took the Bingham’s to Tongo to meet the gospel literacy learners. It was such a sweet reunion for both of them. Later that evening, Jade Jones, Garrett Smith, Joshua Topham and Skylar Christy came to see them.
These are four recently returned missionaries from the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission. Jade and Garrett accompanied Rebecca and Grace to Salt Lake City from Freetown. These four returned missionaries gave Rebecca such comfort and joy as she was able to communicate freely with them and get translation help to understand the nurses’ instructions in regards to Grace.
On Tuesday, both Grace and Rebecca were in great moods. Grace was recovering extremely quickly and Rebecca was so happy that Grace was through the surgery and recovering so well. Lisa reported that one of the very best parts of her day was when she went to the hospital and snuggled with little Grace while Rebecca rested. The hospital was kind enough to bring a regular hospital bed into Grace’s room so that Rebecca could stay with her the whole time. While having dinner at Kelly and Susan Ogden’s last week, Susan had cut up some watermelon, which Rebecca loved. Watermelon is a fruit that grows here, but there are no seedless varieties and often they are picked early so the flavor is not as sweet as in the States. Another staple here is corn on the cob.
Again, the variety is a bit tougher and for some reason perhaps the only vegetable picked late instead of early. The corn on the cob was another food that Susan cooked the night they came over to dinner. So that morning Lisa cooked three cobs of corn, cut up a big watermelon and packed up the rice with the fish and bean sauce and brought it all to the hospital. Food fit for African Queens! Lisa said the only downside might be the smell of fish in her kitchen.
It was on Wednesday evening that Grace was released from the hospital. The IV that was on her ankle, the drain tube from her neck incision and the oxygen sensor on her toe were all removed. She was finally free to get down and run around a bit, something she definitely enjoyed doing. Dr. Grimmer came in and spoke to Lisa and gave her additional information. One of the things we were praying for is that the tumor would be mature, or in other words no longer growing. If the tumor was still growing (immature), the possibility exists that it could grow back several years down the road. Dr. Grimmer said he won’t know for sure until the pathology comes back.
They have a follow-up appointment with him on September 10th to do the thyroid blood test, check her recovery process and talk about the results from the pathology. That day he will also do some other neurological tests to confirm there was no damage to the nerves, although he thinks they are okay. The tumor did deform the jawbone and the throat a little, but he said she is young enough that her body should heal itself. Right before checking out of the hospital, Melissa Hawkley, the global Church literacy specialist, came by to visit with Rebecca and Grace. Melissa has been to Tongo several times and was present the day that Rebecca was baptized. This too was a joyful reunion.
It was on Thursday that Lisa suggested, and we agreed, that keeping Rebecca and Grace at her home rather than moving her to another location (yes, Lisa actually has to work) would be a good idea. Lisa is a flight attendant for Sky West and although she forewent two earlier trips to be with Rebecca and Grace, the time was coming when she needed to leave for her annual training meeting. Enter more angels. Janet Van De Graff, Jenny Cowan Jones, Susan Ogden, Sidney Christy and our returned missionaries Garrett Smith and Skylar Christy. Janet and Jenny are both life-long friends of Lisa’s. Susan is our sister-in-law and Sidney is Skylar’s mom and of course Garrett and Skylar and recently returned Salone missionaries. All of these wonderful people have agreed to come and stay with Rebecca and Grace at Lisa’s house, or else take them on an outing one of the days that Lisa is away, or both. We can never thank everyone enough for the kindness they are showing to Rebecca and Grace.
On Friday and Saturday, we received a couple more pictures of Rebecca working on her gospel literacy lessons. She is committed to improving herself and she knows that if she can learn to read and write her life will be better and more opportunities will open up for her. In the evening, Rebecca made some more fish sauce for the rice and while she was cooking, Lisa ran to the drug store for some Oral Rehydration Solution packets for Rebecca. Being from a humid climate here in Sierra Leone to a dry climate in Salt Lake City, she is suffering from headaches that we think are caused by a degree of dehydration. While Lisa was gone, Rebecca must have burned the fish for when Lisa came home the house was still filled with fish smoke. We are guessing that cooking on a stove top in a home is just not the same as cooking over an outdoor open fire!
Grace didn’t want to sleep much on Friday night, which meant that Rebecca didn’t sleep very much either. On Saturday, Lisa took Grace and went shopping so that Rebecca could rest. We took this from Lisa’s Facebook page: “What do you do when your house guest from Africa can’t stand air conditioning and your house is now over 85 degrees? You offer to give her a break and grab the baby and camp out in the lovely, cool Chick-fil-a, introducing little Gracie girl to the finer things in life. She is double fisting the French fries. If you need us, you know where to find us!” Priceless, simply priceless. Thank you Lisa for your tireless efforts on behalf of Grace and Rebecca.
While our minds were on little Grace’s surgery and recovery in Salt Lake this week, we had a relatively slow week here. We have mentioned before that we have learned to appreciate the slow times because they rarely last very long and when they end we usually end up in a whirlwind of new activity. Still, there were a number of highlights we will mention briefly.
On Tuesday, we took Mary Bunting Graden to the Bo hospital to be fitted for a wheelchair. Mary is the elder sister of Alfred Graden, a counselor in the Simbeck Branch Presidency and a very fine man. Mary was recently baptized but fell some time ago and hurt her left leg to the point where she can no longer walk. Kadie Laundeh, the branch Relief Society President traveled with us to help Mary with communication. Mary was so gracious and so grateful. It only took about 10 minutes and we were finished. We have to admit that the measuring of the chair seemed a bit perfunctory and if you ask us, the chair is too big for her, but we were grateful to get something so important to her for free. We had done this once before, so we knew who to call and where to go to make it happen. These chairs are provided by Latter-day Saint Charities which is a huge blessing to the people here. Now if we could find a way to help her with her cataracts. She is almost completely blind and we believe cataract surgery could make a huge difference in her life. She is so faithful in coming to church each week and just loves being a member. We felt fortunate to be able to help in some small way.
The rest of Tuesday afternoon and much of Wednesday was spent finishing up the story of Tongo that was published on Thursday evening as the lead story on the AfricaWest.ChurchofJesusChrist.org page. We have such a new appreciation for people who can write things quickly. For us it takes time. We kept discovering questions that we were unclear on, so would message questions as they arose to Sister Messie and Brother Kongoley on WhatsApp. Since they are the two most responsible for the success in bringing the Church to Tongo they are the very best sources. At times, we found it challenging to understand and reconcile their different perspectives on the same events, but in the end, we feel we have captured the best version of what actually happened. The story is much longer than what was published, but for the sake of space, we needed to keep the article manageable in terms of length. Overall, we are very happy with the way it turned out.
On Wednesday morning, we took the Sister Training Leaders back to Bo. Sister Letshwenyo and Sister Bitirosi were back in their apartment by 8:00 am and we were back in Kenema by 9:30 am. We stopped briefly at the Moomey’s and picked up some additional cans of Afrigas for the missionary apartments (propane tanks for the missionaries’ stoves) here in Kenema.
In the afternoon, Peter Ngekia, David Gbow and Momoh Swaray came to our apartment in order to get a printed copy of their missionary calls which had come the day before. When they received the texts telling them of their calls they were so excited they could not wait until they returned from the Young Single Adult summit being held in Bo.
They asked us to open their calls and tell them where they are going. So as mentioned, they came by to get a written copy to share with their friends and their families. They also took turns going online and composing an acceptance letter. Since none of them type, they asked me to record their words of acceptance as they provided the oral dictation. What a wonderful moment to hear these amazing young men pledge their faith and obedience to the Lord and their mission presidentas they gratefully accepted these calls to serve. Peter and Momoh will serve in the Nigeria Ibadan Mission. This is a new mission created last year. David has been called to serve in the Botswana/Namibia mission. Both of these missions already have two or more missionaries serving from the Kenema District. Hurrah for Israel!
Thursday, we attended the Kenema South District Council Meeting. Elder Daniel is the new district leader and he did a nice job. He now has the largest district (8) with the addition of another set of Elders in the Nyandeyama Branch to work with Sister Tweh and Sister Akwara.
On Thursday, not only did LaDawn and I meet with them, but the zone leaders also came, bringing the total to 12. The Council was focused on setting specific goals in three areas: Family History Work, Companionship Study and Effective Teaching. Most of the time was spent on figuring out achievable, but stretching family history goals.
On Friday we spent the entire day preparing training packs for the District Council and District Presidency. Over the last year we have prepared over 15 different training packs using PowerPoint and a projector to deliver them to the branch and district leaders. These training packs are extracts from the Handbooks and General Authorities, but since the written Handbooks they have are now 10 years old and out of date, and since few have access to the internet, and since there is not a culture of reading here, these packs have enabled us to teach these important leadership principles and policies as we helped train leaders on their responsibilities. The District Council had asked earlier for hard copies of these presentations so they could continue training new leaders as the need arises once we are no longer here. Many of the leaders in the district have already taught from these packs. We had also made a commitment at the couples retreat in April to put a soft copy of all of these presentations on GoogleDrive so that the senior missionaries could access them if needed. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and worked almost the entire day updating packs, printing, collating and organizing both the hard copies and the soft copies. We took them to the printer today and will get them back tomorrow and then place them into bound folders for the next District Council meeting.
On Friday evening, we were able to get back together with Eku over at OTC. We asked him how he was feeling about his earlier decision to change his faith and he said he was still committed to do so. Ralph and Bernice (our JW counterparts) are currently in China and will be returning sometime this month. This is just one more thing we love about this man. He is not blown about by every wind of doctrine. He studies these things out in his mind and then he prays to know if they are true. Now that he knows for himself, he is like the rock of Gibralter. Firm and steadfast. I asked him if he knew if Joseph Smith was a prophet. He said he was still working on it and had some questions that others have been asking him (e.g., where in the Bible is Joseph Smith talked about?). We found a good talk from 1989 for him titled “Prophecies in the Bible about Joseph Smith” by George A. Horton. We sent him the link and then downloaded the Gospel Library App on his phone and downloaded it there as well. He was very excited to have the app on his phone! We spent some time talking about the law of Chastity and left him with a Word of Wisdom pamphlet to read for our next visit this coming Friday evening.
While we were there his good friend Mohamed Kamanda came by and we had a chance to meet him. Kamanda, as Eku calls him, was his childhood best friend and now lives in Freetown. He was recently appointed to the Ministry of Education where he is working on a new curriculum for Sierra Leone. He used to carry Eku on his back when they were younger and often rode him on a bicycle – even into his 20’s. Kamanda is a very accomplished man, having lived most of his career life in England. He is back now and he has never forgotten his good friend Eku. This sort of friend is priceless. He didn’t care that Eku was disabled, he loved him like a brother….and still does.
On Saturday, we spent a couple of hours working with the Musa sisters. Mary, Elizabeth and Mary (whose real name is Millicient) met with Sister Vena and Sister Oppong and us, and we proceeded to help all three of them submit family names to the temple.
It was great being with these three sisters and those who live in their compound as we worked to help them figure out dates and places so they could enter the names into FamilySearch. Sister Vena did a great job doing most of the heavy lifting as she helped Mary (the oldest) put nearly all of the names in. LaDawn was their consultant helping them work out the dates and resolving a few issues along the way. I worked a bit with Mary (the youngest). When she brought a picture she had of herself when she was less than 6 months old, we snapped it and then did a little repair work on it before uploading it to her “Memories” page on FamilySearch. I also had her voice record her memories about her father (he is still alive) and her mother (she has passed away) and then we uploaded the audio file as well. It was a wonderful afternoon and the spirit of Elijah blessed each of us as we were engaged in this great work.
On Sunday we attended the Kpayama Branch. We loved listening to the testimonies, albeit the Krio got a little thick a time or two. We loved the story told by President Fomba, the first counselor in the District Presidency. He had had a real busy Friday, much of it involving church work. When he got home he was so tired he parked his motorcycle (lent from the government so he could do his job) on the veranda in the front of the house. He says that he normally parks it in the compound and locks the gate. Imagine his surprise when he came out the next morning to find that his bike had been unlocked in front of his house all night long and yet no one disturbed it. He saw it as a direct blessing for if it had been stolen he had no way to pay that money back. He was very grateful.
After sacrament meeting we attended the gospel literacy class. This was the branch where we launched gospel literacy when Sister Bingham was here. Sister Rachel and Sister Hawa were the teachers and they had 7 learners in attendance. It was a great class and those two teachers are good together. We were thrilled to see the progress and excitement on these learners faces and in their voices. This literacy program is beyond wonderful.
Amazing Grace Koroma coupled with the amazing grace that comes through the atonement of Jesus Christ have both been on our minds this week.
We stand in awe of so many things we are experiencing here in Sierra Leone. We stand in awe of the resilience of a little girl and her mom who traveled half way around the world to have a life saving operation. We stand in awe of the many who offered prayers and fasted on Grace’s behalf. We stand in awe of women like Lisa Sparks and men like Doug McMullin and Dr. Fred Grimmer who have made the impossible possible. Lastly we stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers all of his children, regardless of race, creed or color. We glory in the power of God and thank Him everyday for this amazing opportunity to walk hand in hand with the people of Kenema, and this week, with many in Salt Lake City, Utah.