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Two decades ago, a Langford woman struggled to survive when she was saved by Mercy Ships

Sep 05 2012
Nikola Tucker, left - with her adoptive mother, Suzanne Tucker - works at the Market on Millstream, which is a supporter of Mercy Ships Canada. The organization rescued Nikola as a baby. 

Nikola Tucker, left - with her adoptive mother, Suzanne Tucker - works at the Market on Millstream, which is a supporter of Mercy Ships Canada. The organization rescued Nikola as a baby.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam , Times Colonist

At two months old, Nikola Tucker weighed less than three pounds and was struggling to survive when her life was saved by a doctor aboard a Mercy Ships vessel.

Now 20, Nikola works in a Langford supermarket where the owners actively support the charity - a connection that neither knew about until this week.

"It's pretty cool, the circle of life," said Nikola Joy as she sat at the Market on Millstream on Tuesday.

"It's interesting that people here are able to help benefit such a big international organization."

Nikola - which means "overcomer victorious" - was delivered into the world by a midwife on Oct. 15, 1991, on an island off the port of Abidjan, in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.

Born weighing just three pounds, she was abandoned by her birth mother, who fled in the night. "The baby," as she would be known for months, wasn't expected to live.

News of the tiny infant's birth made it to a vessel owned by Mercy Ships - a Christian, non-governmental medical organization that provides free health care, relief aid and community support - anchored off Abidjan.

Aboard the ship were Suzanne and Peter Tucker of the Comox Valley.

Suzanne was just 25 when she boarded the M.V. Anastasis ship docked in Victoria. She had no idea then that on that ship she would meet her future husband - and her future child.

A midwife brought baby Nikola aboard the Mercy Ships vessel when the baby was six weeks old. After holding her, Suzanne, at the time 28, asked her husband if he would consider adopting the child. He agreed and the Tuckers asked the midwife to inquire about the birth mother's whereabouts and the possibility of adoption.

Two weeks passed. The Tuckers had become seriously ill with dysentery, and the baby, who had returned to the island where she was born, was wasting away. At two months old, she was just 15 inches long and two pounds, four ounces. None of the other mothers would breastfeed her for fear of getting sick and they wouldn't hold her.

"They were afraid of hurting her because she was so fragile," Suzanne said.

The Tuckers returned to the island via an ocean going canoe, coincidentally joined by Keith Thomson, a pediatric anesthetist.

Thomson diagnosed the infant as malnourished and severely dehydrated, and said she would be dead in days without intervention.

He took Suzanne aside and told her if she was serious about adopting the child, she would have to act fast and get the child to the medical ship. She did.

Aboard the ship, Thomson inserted a rehydration tube into a vein in the infant's forehead.

That night, baby Nikola was waking everyone on the ward with her screaming for constant feedings and cradling, Suzanne said. It was that set of lungs and that demanding nature that assured her that Nikola would be all right.

By four months old, she had grown to four pounds, eight ounces. Two months later, she was eight pounds. And before she was 11 months old, she crawled and then walked on the same day. After a year, the Tuckers returned to the Comox Valley to raise their daughter.

The midwife was never able to find the birth mother. Thomson and the Ivorian health minister aided the family in the adoption, Suzanne said.

Social workers interviewed the Tuckers and a home study on the ship was done, she added.

Suzanne said the idea of adopting came to her long before she and her husband learned they couldn't bear children of their own.

"I knew since I was seven years old I was going to adopt a little black African baby girl," said Suzanne, 49.

Nikola has always been told her story.

She said she is proud of the mother who adopted her and empathizes with the mother who gave her up.

"It's just the way it was," Nikola said. "There's not much I could do and nothing much she could do."

The Tuckers, married 24 years, have two children.

Josh Tucker, 17, was adopted at birth in Chicago, Illinois, in 1994. His birth mother liked that Josh's sister was from Africa and that he would have a sister with the same ancestry.

Josh said he was glad to have a sibling with a similar background as he was growing up in "all-white Comox." As a young child, he would call Nikola his "an-sister," confusing the word with "ancestor."

On Sept. 15, an auctiongala will be held at the Fairmont Empress Crystal Ballroom to raise money for Mercy Ships Canada.

Nikola didn't discover until this week that her employer, the Market on Millstream, volunteered to supply all of the centerpieces for the tables. Neither knew that they shared a connection with Mercy Ships.

"It's a pretty small world," Josh said.

Tickets to the fundraising gala can be ordered online at mercyships.ca or by calling Mercy Ships Canada at 250-381-2160. ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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