A 60-year-old man in Madagascar can stand strong and tall after about 35 years of coping with a 16.5-pound tumor that progressively overcame the left side of his neck. A traveling team of surgeons from the humanitarian nonprofit Mercy Ships performed the procedure in early February to remove the mass, which involved 14 hours of anesthesia and 12 hours of surgical time.
“It was life-threatening because as it got bigger and bigger, the surface covering the skin starts to break down and bleed. You have episode after episode of bleeding,” the man's doctor, Dr. Gary Parker, chief medical officer of the MV Africa Mercy— a 16,572-ton vessel that is the largest civilian hospital ship in the world— told FoxNews.com.
The man, who doctors identified only as Sambany, of the southwest Madagascar city of Toliery, had hemoglobin levels of 3.3 prior to his surgery on Tuesday, Feb. 3. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen, and a healthy level is typically 14.
“You get much lower than 3, and you can’t sustain life,” Parker said, “so it was life-threatening in that it was chronically out of control and relentlessly growing— sucking up energy to keep it alive, but also [with] the bleeding from the surface he was becoming dangerously anemic.”
Why cells get warped and cause massive tumors like Sambany’s to appear and grow uncontrollably is unknown, but as cancer research emerges, scientists are getting closer to finding out why, Parker said.
Sambany had been a rice farmer until he had to leave his job about two years ago because his tumor made it near-impossible for him to maneuver throughout the fields. As his tumor had continued to inflate throughout his life, he faced ridicule and fear from his fellow field workers, his community, and even his family. People jeered and nicknamed him “dead man,” Parker said.
Operating on Sambany required an immediate team of two surgeons, including Parker, as well as three nurses and two anesthesiologists. Seventeen crew members served as Sambany's blood bank and acted as a crucial part of the larger team, as Sambany received multiple blood transfusions after surgeons removed the mass. The whole ship is staffed by 400 volunteers from 40 different nations who perform surgeries for free.
Throughout the surgery, doctors had to make precise incisions and control of his blood vessels to deprive the tumor— which weighed twice as much as his head— of blood supply.
Sambany’s immediate recovery took about a week, but the wound did not completely heal until about a month after surgery. He also had to undergo physical therapy because his head had been pushed aside for so many years that he started to walk with a tilt.
“Now, it’s amazing— he stands up and holds his head up straight,” said Parker, who has performed thousands of surgeries since leaving his hometown of Los Angeles to operate on patients with Mercy Ships 28 years ago. “In Sambany’s case, I didn’t know what kind of person he is. It turns out he should probably run for office: He’s gregarious, and laughs and shakes people’s hands, and [is] a really nice guy. But you’d never know this because seeing him with this giant mass was kind of frightening, and he couldn’t do much more than just try to get through the day.”
“Napoleon Bonaparte said a man becomes the man of his uniform,” Parker added. “The uniform that’s put on Sambany was ‘You’re rubbish, you’re scary, you’re monstrous,’ and boom: That’s the uniform. But you change the uniform, and he was back in the human race. That’s huge.”