Last Friday my brain was fried, my body was fatigued, and I couldn’t think straight. I realized, then, that I had been pushing myself too hard. I started out discouraged at having my productivity be interrupted by the need for rest, but it didn’t last. As soon as Netflix introduced me to Tambu Makinzi, I learned that everything is a matter of perspective.
I often turn to Netflix when I need some chill time, so after perusing a few titles, I selected The Woman with No Face. Leading the sheltered life that I do as a recluse writer, I had not heard of this woman. The intriguing title piqued my interest and I wanted to know her story.
Settling into my comfy sofa, I had no idea what to expect. I was not disappointed when over the course of the next 45 minutes, I was introduced to an amazing person – Tambu Makinzi. Yet, it wasn’t just an introduction. It was an inspiration.
I learned that Tambu, a beautiful young woman who started modeling at an early age, began to get severe headaches less than a year after her daughter was born. She was living with her husband in South Africa at the time, and had dreams of becoming a civil engineer. When the headaches persisted and her forehead began to swell, doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of bone cancer called chondrosarcoma.
Over the next four years, the cancerous tumors ate away the bones in her face. Unresponsive to treatment, they continued to grow. As they did, her face became disfigured by the 2-pound mass that displaced her left eye and destroyed her sense of smell.
The film focused on Tambu’s last hope – an operation to remove the tumors. It was difficult for me to watch the surgery on film, but I was intent on seeing her safely through the procedure. I was also deeply saddened when I saw that after the team of doctors removed the largest mass, Tambu truly had no face.
Neither did she have any bones remaining to even support a face. Two ribs and a flap of tissue were harvested from her own body for the initial reconstruction. She would need several more operations in order to rebuild her face and palate and to protect her brain that was exposed by the removal of the tumors.
When the documentary ended, I was incredibly happy that Tambu had survived the initial operations. I was also struck by something the lead surgeon said in the film. “The face is the most vital part of the body,” he explained. “We take food through here. We breathe through here.”
I realized, then, that I have always taken my face for granted. I have even criticized it at times, wishing some feature or another was different. More recently, it is the natural signs of aging that I have been disappointed to see when I look in the mirror.
It was only after hearing Tambu’s story, that I realized how blessed I am to even have a face. Let me assure you, though, that this is not about using Tambu’s struggle to make myself feel better about my own life. I absolutely don’t want to do that. What I do want, is to let Tambu’s life impact mine.
Although I was grieved to learn that Tambu passed away a few months ago, I don’t ever want to forget her. She taught me to be grateful that I can breathe, and smell, and see, and eat. She taught me to take nothing for granted. She taught me to love, and hope, and fight, and persevere. And she did all this by simply being herself and living her life the best she knew how.
Thank you, Tambu, for being the beautiful person that you always were and will always be. Although I never had the pleasure of being part of your life, you are now a part of mine. Thank you for giving me that gift. And thank you for reminding me… that everything is a matter of perspective.
Tambu’s lead surgeon, Iain Hutchinson, is the Chief Executive and Founder of Saving Faces.