When operating theatre nurse Lynda Williams learned about Mercy Ships providing free essential surgeries provided to Africa’s poor, she was immediately engaged and interested in volunteering. What came as a big surprise was that her husband Bill’s trade skills were also in high demand on the hospital ship and they loved the idea of serving as a husband and wife team.
The Fielding couple has returned this week from a six-week tour-of-duty aboard the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy currently docked in Conakry, West Africa. Bill sums it up as ‘Hard work that’s great for the inner soul.’
Lynda was rostered on duty in the vessel’s six operating theatres. Her surgical teams performed tumour removal for large benign yet often life-threatening tumours, and more recently ophthalmic surgery for patients of all ages. ‘The last two weeks I contributed to the healing of people of Guinea who are blinded by cataracts by scrubbing every day in the eye theatre. Although the hours are long, and some of the cases are all day long, the crew we work with are great – surgeons and anaesthetic people even helping to mop the floors, take out the rubbish and saying thank you often!
Bill has a lifetime of trade skills in including industrial refrigeration engineering and plumbing. This experience proved to be invaluable on the Mercy Ship which not only contains a self-sufficient surgical hospital and axillary services, but is also home to 450 crew from more than 40 nations. The Africa mercy is large a town where the main industry is a hospital. Therefore Bill’s work crossed between industrial and jobs that were more domestic in nature. Bills explains, ‘I learned a lot while on board but I also brought a lifetime of engineering skills which became very useful and benefitted the ships engineering department.’
Both Lynda was impacted by the level of need they witnessed ashore Guinea. ‘There are many people in Guinea who cannot afford safe and timely medical care, as 55% of the population live on less than NZ$2.50 a day. There is a shortage of trained doctors and nurses (less than 1 surgeon per 100,000 people). Many people are malnourished and need to have vitamin supplements before and after surgery. Some children also need special feeding programmes so they are healthy enough to enable a successful surgical outcome. Infections, non-cancerous growths, and deformities, (which are not seen in the western world), can kill and maim people who have no healthcare. Children with deformities and severe burns struggle to lead a normal life and are often shamed into covering up or becoming outcasts.’
While Bill was keeping things running behind the scenes, Lynda particularly enjoyed interfacing with the patients before and after surgery. ‘I was most impressed with the very first patient that entered the maxilla-facial theatre on the first day of surgery this year. I was privileged to be the scrub nurse for her operation to remove a cyst from her jaw. The 14-year-old girl walked into the operating room by herself, turned and gave a smile and a little wave before climbing up onto the operating table for her operation. She displayed a total trust and bravery that we would be unlikely to see in our own country.’
‘All the personnel on board were there to achieve the same goal – and it wasn’t about earning money. The experience made me more humble and thankful as to where I was born and live,’ reflects Bill, who has a challenge for Kiwi tradies. ‘We are short of people in the trades to carry out maintenance work – engineers, plumbers, electricians, refrigeration engineers, welders and more.’
Lynda concludes, Volunteering with Mercy Ships has made me realise how easy it is to become comfortable and insular in my lifestyle. I have much to offer others who have so little. Getting to know faithful people from around the globe has been a highlight of this experience.’