Mary, a volunteer nurse on the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship, gave a superb talk. She spoke of her experiences working on the ship during its two year stay in Madagascar. To set the scene Mary started with a short video which gave a brief history of the charity’s founder, Don Stephens. She also showed some genuinely scary pictures of people with almost unbelievable conditions but this explained the surgical focus of the hospital ship’s mission. Don Stephens, an American, is clearly a visionary man of great humanity and strong Christian faith. He realised that hospital ships could deliver healthcare very efficiently to large numbers of people, and so inspired the Mercy Ships charity. Mary made clear that race, gender and creed had no place in who received help from the Christian charity. While most of the medical care is on the ship, the charity have a Hope Centre, a rehabilitated hospital, where the post-op recovery work is done such as physio and changing dressings. In addition, the charity provides shore based education and training to meet local needs. This humanitarian aid includes training medics on modern medical practices, farmers on improving agricultural care and training to repair complex charity gifted machines and equipment which otherwise might end up useless and abandoned. So the charity is aiming for transformational change so that locals can continue self-improvement once the Mercy Ship has moved on – a worthwhile legacy. A message members have heard in the past from such speakers as Duncan McLaren of SCIAF in 2019.
The story starts at Mary’s front door surrounded by her suitcases just before setting off to Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world. She’s also carrying emergency supplies for her future colleagues and companions for things difficult to obtain such as guitar strings! On arrival at the ship she finds herself sharing a modest cabin with five other women on three sets of bunk beds. It has air con and a toilet, so that’s OK! The ship has 80 beds in five wards. Each ward has a Chaplain. They are ‘musical’ providing comfort in their ministry with songs and serve the valuable role of communicators and interpreters between the patients and expat staff.
Mary explained that before the ship arrives the charity sends messages to tell people who need medical help that the hospital ship is coming. Closer to the time, the charity send a forward party to check out the crowds of people who arrive seeking treatment. They are separated into queues according to need. Staff specifically check for people who are in pain to help prioritise. We learn that during triage that the charity will only do surgery on benign tumours of which we see many horrendous photos. People with cancer won’t be treated but will be given palliative care advice.
The hospital ship treats many with severe burn injuries. The surgical work can release fused fingers and limbs but to the disappointment of many the surgeons have a limited ability to spend much time repairing facial scarring. Insect bites also can give rise to severe facial conditions which the surgeons can fix. Many come with terrible leg problems including bowed legs. One man even presented himself with back to front knees. We wonder that the surgeons are able to tackle such challenging conditions. However, they do and leave the patients with a big smile on their faces. One little girl with bow legs who needed a zimmer to aid her recovery found herself with a bespoke walking aid made from spare tubes by the ship’s engineers. Something the engineers have learned to do so that children can continue their exercises at the Hope Centre.
One man with the largest tumour ever seen by the surgeons was asked if he really wanted the operation because it would be life threatening. He happily consented because, as he put it, the tumour was already killing him! However, Mary showed us a photo of the ten blood donors needed to make up for the blood loss due to the tumour removal op. Their smiling faces belied the seriousness of the operation. Talking about smiling, Mary observed that many of the women who turned up for treatment had fistulas after difficult births leaving them damaged and incontinent. The surgeons are able to repair the fistulas allowing the women to return to their communities from which they had been excluded. The charity’s thoughtful parting gift is to give the women a ‘new wardrobe’ before going home. Something guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face!
Mary thought it was worthwhile saying that she sometimes found herself humbled by the care and support that many of the patients had received from their families. It was clear that many of them would have died without the lengths to which mothers and others went to feed and treat their relative’s conditions.
The Africa Mercy, the ship which Mary was on, had more beds than the three earlier hospital ships which had preceded her. However, the Mercy Ships charity now have a new purpose built hospital ship, Global Mercy. It has 102 beds and some 90 self-caring beds. It will be based in Senegal and, when it starts working, it will stay there for two years. However, it is important to note that Mercy ships has given aid all over the globe from the Caribbean to Western Samoa. The charity works with governments around the world who normally waive or cover port charges to have the privilege of the hospital ship aid in one of their port cities.
While the Mercy Ships charity is a US based organisation, it has many offices around the world including the UK. It is an enabling charity that aims to help improve medical care for the nations served. It also enjoys charitable support from pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, largely with in-kind donations. In addition, Mary explained that the crew, including the surgical teams, were responsible for getting to the ship and their own bed and board. Truly this is charity above and beyond the call of duty. It was good to hear that many of the crew did enjoy charitable support from home communities and that the American nurses were often sponsored by their hospitals. They may have hospital charity funds which can be accessed. Of course, Mercy Ships also receive public donations as well but the degree of support from the crew is simply humbling.
At this stage Mary couldn’t resist a bit of a soft sell to members and said the charity is always looking for all skills, saying ‘there’s a place for you!’ This includes mariners, teachers, medics and all kinds of support staff down to cleaners. So to anyone who can climb five flights of stairs, what Mary had to do on board Mercy Africa, she says you’ll do, or words to that effect!
It’s not possible here to do justice to Mary’s talk. That it was followed by a lively question and answer session, demonstrated that she had caught members’ interest. It was clearly enjoyed by all. While the Club has already made a donation to Mercy Ships as a token of appreciation for Mary’s talk, anyone who wishes to make a personal donation can click on the following weblink: https://www.mercyships.org.uk.