Our Boat Friends Saved a Little Girl

Today’s article is not about us. It’s about our friends- the German family we met a few years ago in French Polynesia aboard catamaran INVICTUS. 

We became good friends with Toby and Nicole and their two little girls Marlene (6) and Julie (5). We sailed together to Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji, and New Caledonia, sharing some of the most unforgettable moments of our sailing journey. You probably remember them from the many stories and videos we published of all the adventures we shared since we crossed the Pacific?

Marlene and Julie greet Maya from their catamaran Invictus, as Fata Morgana arrives in the anchorage.

The friendship we made with Invictus crew remains one of the strongest from all our travels. We sailed together for many months, helping each other whenever we could, having fun, and sharing beautiful moments in some of the planet’s most stunning places. We have created a strong and lasting bond between us and we got to know each other well. Toby and Nicole are honest, fun and adventurous, very organized and always caring, welcoming and generous helping people. They are also very brave, determined and hard-working. We will forever be grateful to Toby and Nicole for all these times they were there for us.

At a picknick in New Zealand- Ivo, Mira, Toby and NIcole.

But only recently I fully realized how immensely selfless, noble and compassionate Toby and Nicole are. I was left crying with feelings of enormous gratitude. They have done something not everyone would have the courage, strength and determination to do. 

They have saved the life of a dying girl, and are still fighting for her survival.

Toby with Micheline in Vila Hospital

A few weeks ago Ivo called Toby. We still talk to them from time to time, keeping in touch, planning a ski vacation together in Canada. “How are you guys, how is everyone?” -asked Ivo as he always does. Toby said on the phone: “I am not sure if you want to hear this…” And he told Ivo the most heartbreaking, shocking, sad story.

Last summer, the family was sailing in Vanuatu. When they dropped anchor near the beautiful island of Pentecost, they were approached by a local man asking for help. Here is what happened next, as told by Nicole:

“A local man approached us and asked if we had medication on board to help his sick grand daughter. We had no idea what to expect and of course agreed to come to the village to see what we can do. We found a little girl in a grave physical condition, barely responding.

It was the most awful state to see another human being in, especially a child, and a profound moment in our lives that has impacted us so deeply and changed us personally forever.

We had to get her immediately to a hospital. She was air lifted to Vila shortly after, being moved and transported, an incredibly painful experience for her and a miracle that she survived.

Micheline was malnourished (19.5kg!), dehydrated, her blood tests indicated that she is lucky to be still alive. We found her just in time. She would have not lasted much longer.

More than half of her body was covered in skin lesions and also some burns which we aren’t sure where they originated from. Her lesions were covered in dirt and flies. She was barely responsive.

We arranged for blood and skin tests to be sent to Australia (Vanuatu doesn’t have labs for these type of tests), and discovered that Micheline suffers from a very rare auto-immune skin disorder Pemphigus Vulgaris. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pemphigus_vulgaris

This disorder causes skin lesions and blisters, and if not treated, results in death. Sadly, we learned that it appears her mother died from the same disease 5 years ago. She didn’t receive treatment. This is most tragic, because even though this disorder can’t be cured, it is very treatable if addressed without delay.

In Micheline’s culture black magic is a custom, practiced frequently, and the family was hoping that their cultural rituals would help her. http://dailypost.vu/opinion/letters_to_editor/black-magic-and-witchcraft/article_24111eed-9878-5974-ab66-a723de07afc7.html

Micheline was left untreated for 4 months from when her symptoms first appeared and her health deteriorated fast. During this time she had to tolerate unbelievable pain, physically and mentally but she never gave up and was holding on to her young life.

You can imagine how this impacted us personally, and how this created a conviction to help this human being survive and live a life worth living. We cannot walk away and leave her to her destiny which will result in her death.

Micheline is currently in Vila Hospital. She immediately received blood infusions and antibiotics and we have managed to get daily guidance from our limited network (other sailors, Medbee Europe, Marine Reach NZ, DEBRA NZ and a dermatologist from Auckland Starship Hospital).

Resources in the hospital are very limited, and everyone, especially nurses performing miracle work to improve her situation.

We are incredibly humbled by the support we have received; it is still early days and much more is urgently needed.

She has now started steroid therapy for her auto-immune disorder. Micheline started to eat and her weight is increasing which is progress.

Micheline’s body has very deep pressure-wounds from lying many months without moving. Every two days dressings have to be changed which is extremely painful for her and is now done (unlike recently) under the influence of morphine.

To minimise the excruciatingly painful ordeal, we source specialized dressings (that don’t stick to her open wounds) from overseas. These dressings are extremely expensive and are not available in Vila. We currently order them from Tahiti and have received also donations from other generous people in different countries.

Micheline has not been walking for many months. She is so weak and all her muscles have faded away. She will need to learn how to walk again.”

Micheline in Vila Hospital

After transferring Micheline to Vanuatu’s capital and providing her with the immediate lifesaving medical care, we thought that Toby and Nicole would continue on their sailing vacation, having saved the girl’s life, and leaving her in the hands of the professional medical doctors in Port Vila hospital. But they didn’t! They remained next to the girl until the time came for Nicole to return in New Zealand with her two little daughters where they had to start school.

Toby remained in the hospital with Micheline. Literally living in the hospital, helping to change her bandages, reading her stories, feeding her. Every single day, from morning til evening. He is still there, next to Micheline, making sure she is well cared for, and we are there with them in our thoughts and in our hearts.

In the meantime, Nicole kept working to arrange for the girl to be transferred to a better hospital in a western country, organizing fundraiser for the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for medical materials, a nurse from Switzerland with en experience in skin and burn patients in Africa,  and for all the expensive medication, bandages etc.

The big challenge is that ideally Micheline should be transferred to a western hospital, like Starship Hospital, Auckland. Micheline cannot take a commercial flight and would need a special med-evac charter.

We are currently working with local authorities, agencies, and organisations to see what can be done.

These things take time and they are complicated and we need to ensure for now, that Micheline’s care in Vila is secured and her treatment monitored and responded to immediately if anything changes.

This is critical, because Micheline’s body is still vulnerable to infections and her body is still malnourished even though we are most pleased with her progress and weight gain.

Tobias is still currently in Vila and has arranged a birth certificate and passports for Micheline, her dad and step mother in preparation for departure when the time comes.

Right now we need help with the following:

+ Dressings material – e.g. UrgoCell Ag/Silver, Urgo surgifix, Medicomp compress steril, ialuset creme

+ Protein powder – nutrition drinks & protein shakes for children

+ Contacts – any contacts you may have in your networks that could assist in any way (e.g. to organisations, medical contacts etc) please contact us directly: nicole.mueller@live.co.uk

We anticipate the following expenses

+ Accommodation & food expenses – for Micheline’s family while based in Vila

+ Travel & local expenses – for Micheline and her parents to receive specialised medical care offhore.

+ Rehabilitation – e.g. to build muscles and walk again

We are totally committed to support Micheline, so that she can go back to her village and continue living her life and go back to school. Micheline has 4 more brothers and sisters whom she misses a lot. Your donation will help to arrange for her family to visit her.

We fully anticipate to provide ongoing support over the next years until Micheline is old enough to take care of her medical needs herself.

Many people responded with donations made through the campaign URGENT!! Fighting for her life & future – Micheline (10 years), Vanuatu on the Give a Little website, and even just spreading the story has helped our friends to collect over 60,000 NZD so far, needed for Micheline. Here Nicole explains further what are the funds needed for and how they are helping Micheline:

NOTE ABOUT YOUR DONATION

People have been asking us how they can help Micheline and how they can support us.

We want you to know that all funds raised will solely go towards Micheline’s recovery, the management of her auto-immune disorder and her family’s expenses.

It has been estimated, that a transfer to NZ and all associated costs could easily end up costing around NZD800,000, hence we have set up this site.

Any expenses that we and our supporters incur (e.g. our own travel and accommodation expenses to Vanuatu etc) will be covered by ourselves.

In addition, every donation made, incurs a 5% service fee which goes to Give a Little. We are covering this fee ourselves so that every dollar donated will be allocated to this purpose.

Micheline is in critical condition and there are still risks that could impact Micheline’s survival chance. If Micheline or her family no longer require support, all remaining funds will be donated to Vila Hospital.

Daily we see Micheline’s incredible resilience and strength to survive. This fuels our strength and commitment to walk this journey with her and continue fighting with and for her.

Thanks for reading this story. Your support, kindness and care means a lot to us!

Nicole & Tobias

Use of Funds:

Immediate use of funds

+Pressure mattress, medical expenses

+Micheline’s & her family’s expenses in Vila & overseas

+Ongoing local expenses and supplies as needed

The New Zealand Herald also helped by publishing their story and spreading the call for help. We are hoping to do the same, as much as possible.

In the story titled Saving Micheline: Round-the-world-yachties’ rescue mission Phil Taylor writes:

Once seen some things cannot be unseen.

That’s how it is for an around-the-world yachting family whose voyage turned into a rescue mission the moment they laid eyes on Micheline.

Last month Nicole and businessman Tobias Janke found 10-year-old Micheline Warri close to death in a mud-floor hut on Pentecost Island, 190 kilometres due north of Vanuatu capital Port Vila.

That encounter last month brought the family into contact with witchcraft, aid agencies and introduced them to a rare autoimmune disease. Most of all, it led to a determination to save Micheline’s life and to see she has a life worth living.

It was a collision of worlds for the Jankes who with Marlene, 6, and Juliane, 5, have spent much of the past few years sailing the world on their 52-foot catamaran, Invictus.

The German couple fell in love with New Zealand during their trip and now call Auckland home. The girls go to school in the city and the family’s residency applications are being processed.

Last school term they took the girls out of school and sailed to the islands where, after throwing anchor at Pentecost Island, they were approached by a man wanting medicine for his granddaughter.

“We asked to see the child and then we found her in a deadly situation,” Nicole told the Herald.

“She was dehydrated, malnourished and not responding. Half of her skin was gone. She had third-degree burns on her legs and feet. They were infected and covered with flies.

“It was shocking. We had never seen something like this and we couldn’t understand how a child could be in a state like this and that the parents would not react. For us in the Western world we can’t really process that.”

“They believe in black magic. They thought she is witched. She was in the hut where they were living but there is no doctor on the island. They can’t really see a way out.”

“When we saw her, for us it was clear. We can’t walk away.”

Unlikely to survive a voyage to Port Vila on their yacht, the Jankes arranged a flight paid for by the Vanuatu Government.

The Herald first met the Jankes earlier this month in Port Villa where Micheline was in a modesty-equipped isolation room in Vila Central Hospital. On arrival she weighed 19.5kg and her blood count – a health check that can detect a wide range of disorders including anaemia and infection – was dangerously low.

Tobias explained at the time what they faced. “It is a short-term issue to survive and a very big one about what next.”

In the fortnight since, Micheline has done well. She has had a blood transfusion, fluid through an IV, protein drinks and steroids and has gained 2.5kg, although she still weighs less than the Jankes’ 5-year-old.

Blood and tissue samples sent to Australia have produced a diagnosis. Micheline has the rare genetic autoimmune disease Pemphigus Vulgaris which is even rarer in children.

It causes painful blistering on the skin and mucous membranes and if untreated can lead to death.

They have learned that Micheline’s mother did not receive modern treatment for the disease and died five years ago. When the Jankes found Micheline she had lain in the hut for four months.

“But she is talking, she’s eating, she’s drinking, she’s complaining, she’s drawing, she’s laughing sometimes and the other day she was singing. So this is amazing what everybody has achieved in four weeks for this little girl.”

The Jankes have set up a Givealittle page to help Micheline’s ongoing recovery.

“Now we just have to keep going. We are hoping we will receive enough donations to fly her to a Western country because she needs care for a few months. She is eating up a lot of funds and that is hard for a lot of help agencies.”

It is unlikely that Micheline could manage her disease back in her village but she could in Port Vila where she has family and where agencies have committed to help.

“We are kind of set up for the life after but right now we are focused on bringing her out.”

Micheline’s father and step-mother are getting happier as their daughter improves.

“Before they had no hope that she was going to survive.”

Tobias has stayed in Port Vila while Nicole returned to Auckland with the girls for the new school term.

During the search for help the Jankes were told that Micheline couldn’t be saved and they needed to find a way to accept that.

“But we can’t,” Nicole said. “She is a human being who we kind of fell in love with. She has made so much progress. Micheline is really a fighter.”

“We are settling in New Zealand and Vanuatu is not so far. We will not sail away and leave her alone. She is part of us now.”

The Jankes have pledged to pay the Givealittle fee so that all donations go to help Micheline.

In the Port Vila Hospital

We have witnessed one of the most humane, selfless acts anyone we know in our life has ever done… And we know these people! They are our very good friends! They have always helped us and supported us on so many occasions! 

The only thing we could do to help them in this unimaginably difficult for them moment is to spread the word and to contribute and Give a Little for Micheline.

Sailing aboard a small private sailboat is a much different way of traveling the world than simply flying somewhere as a tourist, booking a hotel and visiting the popular tourist attractions. Sailing has allowed us to go to places inaccessible to tourists, to meet local people, spend time with them, and have authentic experiences of local cultures. We have spent months and not just days in some of the places we visited, where we have formed a more fuller idea of the peoples’ lives and problem. We have seen not only the famous attractions swarmed by the tourists, but also the poor local villages.

Thus, we have acquired a different and fuller perspective of the world, its beauty and its misery. And we cannot forget or ignore the fact that so many around the world lead difficult lives of hardship and poverty. Like our friends Toby and Nicole whose lives are now changed forever thanks to this one little girl, our lives are also changed forever thanks to all the places we have been to and all the people we have met.

We will be helping, one little person at a time. There is so much suffering, so much injustice in the world and surely no one can fix it all. But even if we can make a tiny little difference, we will. We will keep sending donations from New Zealand to the islands in Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji when the next sailing season starts through out Rice Boat Project. Until then, we will support our friends in their quest to save Micheline.

We have used the funds we receive through Patreon to help Toby and Nicole on their journey to save Micheline, as we believe our Patrons would be proud to know their support makes a real difference in one little girl’s life.

On November 3, another article was published in New Zealand Herald, and hope lives on:

Saving Micheline: Overwhelming response brings hope for 10-year-old Vanuatu girl

An overwhelming response to the plight of a Vanuatu girl found close to death on a remote island has opened up options for her recovery.

Following a story in last week’s Weekend Herald, more than 330 people have donated more than $50,000 via a Givealittle page set up by round-the-world sailors Nicole and businessman Tobias Janke.

It means a nurse can fly from Europe to Vanuatu to care for Micheline Warri fulltime for a few months if they can’t find a hospital in a western country to take her.

The Jankes have dedicated themselves to her recovery since finding 10-year-old Micheline last month unresponsive in a mud-floor hut on Pentecost Island, 190km due north of Vanuatu capital Port Vila.

She was, dehydrated, malnourished, had extensive infected skin sores and third-degree burns on her legs and feet.

They arranged for her to be flown to Vila Central Hospital where the Weekend Herald first met them. On arrival Micheline weighed just 19.5kg and her blood count was dangerously low.

“It is a short-term issue to survive and a very big one about what next,” Tobias said at the time.

Micheline’s weight has increased to 25kg, she is now able to eat and drink without any assistance and is strong enough to be taken outside in a wheelchair for short periods.

But the Jankes say her long-term prospects depend on the quality of care she gets during the next few months.

A nurse in Switzerland, who is skilled in treating burns patients and has done aid work in Africa, has agreed to come to Vanuatu at the end of November for three months if needed.

As of today, Micheline has been transferred in New Caledonia for better treatment, her weight is now 25 kg and she can now eat and drink on her own!

Micheline is getting better!

Micheline is getting better and there is hope that by the end of January her auto-immune disorder will be under control with an appropriate treatment plan and medication and that her skin will fully recover and her body weight will go back in the normal range. Her chances  to be strong enough and to be able to walk again through extensive rehabilitation are now much bigger!

Newest updates on Micheline’s recovery by Nicole:

We were so humbled by the immediate responses and generosity we received from you; it exceeded all our expectations. We want you to know how much all your comments and donations mean to us. We read every single one of them; and even though we can’t respond to all of you, please know that your words, encouragement and support has fueled our strength and energy to keep going on this quest. Thank you!!

(1) We have some great news! Through our European networks, we made contact with a nurse from Switzerland who has extensive aid work experience in Africa but is also highly qualified especially around burn victims.

Her name is also Nicole, and she is currently working at the Uniklinic Hospital in Zurich. She has agreed to come the end of November to take full time care of Micheline for 3 months. Nicole also has fantastic medical networks throughout Germany and Switzerland and will be able to get advise from specialist units as required. This is an incredible milestone for us in securing additional continuous medical care while we are still working to get Micheline into an overseas hospital.

(2) Micheline’s weight has now increased to 25kg! Her appetite is ever increasing, too and she is able to eat and drink now without any assistance from us.

The days can be long for her and her need of being more stimulated is becoming more apparent.

Tobias even did some basic maths with her the other day which she very much seemed to enjoy. 🙂

The mattress seems to be helpful, but her massive pressure sore at the bottom of her spine has become a challenge as it is not improving.

The rest of her skin is definitely getting better.

(3) We change her dressings every 2 days. Micheline gets a small amount of morphein to help her with the anxiety and pain this causes her. She can handle it much better now. Dressing materials are running critically low.

Nicole from Switzerland has been in touch with the Swiss manufacturer Ialugen who has kindly offered to supply dressings for free. We are very thankful to Nicole for organizing this. These will be dispatched on Tuesday. In addition, we are trying to source a large supply of these specialised dressings, as we go through a lot of these.

They are incredibly expensive and through our worldwide contacts we are hoping to get access to wholesale supplies. Your donations will assist funding these.

A local Christian support group come to the hospital to sing for Micheline in her native language.

Micheline has been very quiet in general, but when she started singing, it was an emotional moment for us all. It’s was very moving – a song of hope….

You can watch this beautiful moment here.

If you would like to help Micheline visit our friends fundraising page @Give a Little

URGENT!! Fighting for her life & future – Micheline (10 years), Vanuatu

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