Letters From Luke – Arlene’s Miracle

By: Father Luke Tupper, aboard the hospital ship Esperança, 1974 Newsletter

In 1974, 10 year-old Arlene was on her first trip to the city with her family. The small boat was slowly plying its way toward Santarem, having left Vila Curuai several hours before. Most of the passengers were quietly watching the waves go by or discussing the purchases they were going to make later in the day in Santarem.  Little Arlene went over to watch the open axle as it spun smoothly, spinning the propeller of the boat far behind. This was Arlene’s first trip to Santarem and she was fascinated by the spinning axle. Outside the skies were darkening and a black tropical storm threatened.

Aboard the boat, the board windows had been closed and the tropical rainstorm beat down hard.  The sound of the rain on the rood was suddenly split by the terrified scream of the little girl.  Arlene didn’t know what hit her.  Her hair had been caught in the spinning axle and her head was quickly slammed against it. In a split second her scalp and forehead had been ripped off.  Her parents watched in horrified silence. A few gray rags were found in the little boat and the girl’s open bleeding scalp was wrapped tightly.  The mother found a plastic sack and shoved in the scalp with all her child’s hair and half her forehead. The boat continued on its way to Santarem.

I arrived at the clinic and no sooner was examining the first patient when the parents arrived with the father carrying the girl in his arms. When Regina arrived she placed the child in the other examining room and called me. I was stunned. As I listened to the story, the mother gave be the child’s hair and scalp in the plastic bag. The little pale child sat in a state of shock with a filthy rag glued to her bloody scalp.  Her right eye wasn’t there. Either it had been ripped out or everted by the avulsed scalp.  Her little chest was caked with dried blood.  I tried to remove the rag, but the little girl screamed in pain.  Only a small margin of the left forehead was still in place. The rest was all gone.

Arlene was the third patient for Esperança’s first volunteer surgical team.  With most of the scalp gone in addition to part of the forehead skin, to say nothing of one missing ear and scarring around the right eye, restoring Arlene’s appearance involved major surgical procedures and multiple operations.  The scalp cannot heal itself and only extensive skin grafts will give the skin a chance to grow and gradually close the wound.  Unfortunately, all skin grafts do not take and Arlene required 5-10 grafts before a sufficient area was covered.  Only 20% of the first graft “took” and the second graft was done by the surgical team shortly before their departure from Santarem.  Arlene’s head was constantly swathed in bandages. Her face was ghost pale against the brightly colored pillowcase. A tear trickled down her cheek. I knew she was hurting.

In between surgical missions, Arlene’s dressings were changed and she spent her days with her shipmate, Cleto, a boy being prepped for surgery to correct two contracted feet.  Once the grafting was complete, the surgeons started on the cosmetic aspects, including the building of a new ear.

Without Esperança’s hospital ship, Arlene would have been destined to spend the rest of her life without a scalp, changing the bandages daily.

After keeping up with the updates of Arlene's story, we received the following note from a reader:

Dear Friends, I do not want this money to go into the general fund. I wish it to go directly to Fr. Luke and Sr. Regina to buy a gift for Arlene. Tell them to buy her something wildly extravagant – ($10 worth!) – to make her happy. I would suggest a lovely doll. Tell her somebody loves her – somebody cares. Better yet – tell her – EVERYBODY loves her! EVERYBODY cares!

With this gift, we purchased a beautiful doll and wig for the child, I'm not sure which she enjoyed more! Two months following the final surgery, all of the open ulcers on Arlene’s scalp had healed and she was discharged. She proudly returned to her interior jungle home wearing her wig, with new sandals on her feet and her big red doll in tow.

Learn more about Father Luke and his founding of Esperança on our History page.