Julia Faire takes a look at the world of mercy ships
“FOR all the things that we have done to ourselves as a people, your response is one of love; one that helps us to see a different way, to look at ourselves with a different value. You enable many of our people to live again, to become part of society in a normal way – no longer an object of pity, no longer silenced by their handicap, no longer ashamed of their condition. We thank you.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, speaking of the work of the ‘African Mercy’.
The African Mercy is a hospital ship with an international crew of 400+ which cruises up and down the African coast, offering free medical care to some of the world’s poorest people. It has been operating since 1978 and is, at present, anchored off the coast of Benin, West Africa.
The African Mercy’s team of surgeons, doctors, nurses, teachers, cooks and the ship’s crew are almost entirely volunteers and it is estimated that those aboard the ship have helped turn around the lives of more than 2.54 million patients. Healthcare and operations administered by the staff in the ship’s five operation theatres include conditions like craniofacial tumours, ear-nose and throat diseases, cleft lip and palate, hernias, goitres and burns. All these are life-threatening conditions if untreated and often leave the victim a social outcast. Eye surgery and cataract operations are also performed on board.
75% of the world’s population lives within 150km of a port city and word about the work of the African Mercy as she approaches and docks soon reaches many who are desperate for life-changing, life-saving healthcare.
Rachel Greenland from the UK is a volunteer nurse and team leader on the African Mercy, having worked on the ship for four years. Below are some extracts from her latest newsletter:
"Hello from hot Cotonou!
It seems unreal that it can be winter in this heat. I can’t imagine feeling cold at this point! It is however, currently the rainy season here, so it rains every few days and particularly at weekends.
Surgery is now in full flow at Cotonou. The specialties so far include plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery, general surgery and head and neck surgery. All wards are now open and very lively! My team is doing great. Most of them are leading their ward teams for the first time, and they are doing very well. I am always humbled by the willingness of the nurses to step in and volunteer to do extra shifts whenever we are short.
Let me tell you about two of our patients: Bayo (not her real name) is a three week old baby girl who has a large cleft lip. She weighed 2kg (4lb). Bayo was seen by our infant feeding program to try and fatten her up and reach a safe weight to undergo surgery. When she arrived she was listless, not feeding and didn’t cry when they took blood tests. She came into the ward for rehydration and to monitoring feeding.
After three days she left the ward for home looking very much stronger and we now await her to reach the minimum weight for surgery. While she was here, one of the nurses asked her Mum what her name meant. Her Mum said ‘All God does is good’. That was such a beautiful and nearly unbelievable surprise. In countries such as this, with such superstition, the birth of a baby with a cleft often brings great shame to the mother and family. Sometimes babies get buried alive. Last week a cleft child had a name meaning ‘sorry’. Last year a child’s name meant ‘God has forgotten’. Bayo’s name has taught us a lot! Such a tiny one to teach us a big lesson in life. We are very excited for the day when she comes for surgery, which shouldn’t be too much longer now.
Viv (again, not his real name) was the first patient to have plastic surgery here in Benin – two years ago, Viv was playing with matches, when his clothes caught fire and badly burnt his abdomen and legs. Unable to afford any medical care, it slowly healed but resulted in bad contractures. He was permanently bent over. The surgery was difficult and he had a difficult first couple of days, but then gradually began to improve. The whole ward cheered him on when he first got up and used his Zimmer frame. He has now changed from a boy who would always hide behind his Dad, to one who is always wanting to sit with the nurses and has endless energy. He and his Papa have the most beautiful smiles and when they leave the ward next week, there will be tears, but tears of joy and tears from what happens in your heart, when you see a journey of grace and seeing broken lives return to hope beyond their dreams.
This week we had the pleasure of a visit from the President of Benin, Patrice Talon. He was on the ship for an hour and really enjoyed meeting the patients and they were very happy to meet him too.
I haven’t been out and about too much at the moment, with a busy start up. However I did go to Ouidah, which is a very interesting place not for from here. Ouidah is the exit place of the slave trade, where the slaves came to be selected, then walked the slave route chained together, to board the ships. It was very humbling to go there.
Thank you for all your support,
The African Mercy will remain in Benin until June 2017 when she will head out to sea towards her next destination – Cameroon.
“I salute the vision and mission of Mercy Ships, and ask that you join me in supporting their noble work and contribute to make this world a better place.” – Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa
5 facts about Benin:
1) Capital - Porto Novo
2) Cotonou, where the African Mercy is docked, is the only seaport and international airport
3) Famous for slave trading (last slave ship left in 1885)
4) French colony for 58 years.
5) Indigenous languages: Fon and Yoruba. Official language: French