2019 January

Adama was five months pregnant when the world around her started to flicker and fade. 

Because of cataracts in her eyes, soon all she could see were shadows and shapes. Months passed as her vision continued to dwindle. ‘Maybe it will clear up after I give birth,’ she told herself, hoping that the loss of sight was somehow linked to her pregnancy.But once she’d delivered her twin babies — a boy and a girl — 30-year-old Adama had to face the truth. She was blind and afraid that she might never be able to see the faces of her newborns. And without access to affordable, safe surgery, she felt like there was nothing that could fix her sight.

‘I held my babies after they were born, and I couldn’t see their faces. I thought this would last forever; that I would never know what they look like. I was very desperate,’ Adama said. ‘I didn’t have any hope.’

Adama, along with her newborns and four other children, moved in with her older sister, Aissatou, who became their caretaker. Aissatou welcomed them in lovingly, but with her own children to take care of, the burden was heavy. ‘It’s been a very hard year,’ Aissatou reflected in tears.

For Adama, the reliance on her sister was challenging in a different way. The sudden inability to take care of her own children left her feeling guilty. ‘Since my eyes are dark, I can’t walk alone, go to the market, cook, do laundry… I can’t do anything without help.’

Adama’s blindness stretched on for almost a year. The twins were six months old, their faces still a mystery to their mother, when her husband first heard about Mercy Ships.

For this family, the opportunity to access a state-of-the-art hospital ship meant more than just free surgery. It meant giving Adama the chance to step out of the darkness. It meant being able to take care of her family instead of depending on others for help. It meant being able to see her loved ones again.

It meant hope.

The day after her operation on the Africa Mercy, Adama sat on a wooden bench waiting for her eye patch to be removed. It was the moment she’d learn whether or not her eyesight had returned fully.

As the patch was peeled back, Adama kept her eyes closed for a few moments. Gradually, she blinked them open. A smile slowly spread across her face as she realized she was seeing the world again for the first time in almost a year.

Her family members, gathered nearby, were some of the first people to welcome Adama back into the world of the seeing. She walked by herself to greet them, no guiding hand needed. ‘When I die and will go to paradise and meet my own people there… that’s what the moment was like.’

She reached for her twins, drinking in the details of their faces for the first time. Tiny noses; long eyelashes; round cheeks — Adama cradled them both in her arms at the same time, eyes dancing between the two.

‘I never expected that my babies would be so beautiful,’ she murmured.

The impact of her restored sight will reverberate throughout the rest of her life. There will likely be countless moments where Adama rejoices because of the ability to see again — but it’s hard to imagine a moment more meaningful than a mother’s patient love being rewarded with the sight of her children for the first time.

Written by: Rose Talbot

2019 January

Radiographer from Epsom

Miriam White heard about Mercy Ships during her training as a radiographer. She dreamed about volunteering for five years before the opportunity finally came her way in 2018. ‘The stories I read about patients they’ve provided surgery to touched my heart. I wanted to use my professional skills to make a difference and offer hope to people in need.’

In November Miriam packed her bags and made the long trek from Auckland to Guinea, West Africa for her seven-week tour-of-duty. She worked alongside another radiographer onboard. Miriam’s tasks included performing x-rays on the Mercy Ships patients as part of their pre-surgery assessment, sometimes during their stay, and before they were discharged.

Miriam attended Sema at ‘week 4 post surgery’ as his major orthopaedic surgery required monitoring.  ‘I loved taking the discharge x-rays for the children who had received osteotomies (corrective surgery on their legs). It was exciting to see them standing straight for the first time.’

Nabinti had a CT-scan performed by Miriam on her first day at work on board! The images were a vital part of her assessment and treatment plan.  Normally there is only one CAT scan for the entire population 12 million people in Guinea, West Africa and accessing the service at $250 a time is well beyond the reach of the vast majority.  Miriam’s services doubles that capacity and, as with all mercy Ships services, it is provided free to charge to the patients.

2019 January

Captain John Borrow taking a navigational fix during the sail.

John Borrow never planned on being a full-time volunteer, but when he first heard about Mercy Ships in the 1990’s he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t ignore.His long journey with the not-for-profit that operates the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, has taken Mr Borrow and his family from Sydney around the world. From 2016 to 2018 he served as the flagship’s Captain.

More than 400 volunteers from over 40 nations live and work on board the Mercy Ship, providing free surgical essential services and health care education to those without access in the developing world.

Borrow learnt of Mercy Ships through a friend. After setting foot on board during a visit while a ship was in port in New South Wales, he knew he wanted to be part of its crew.

‘I was kind of disillusioned with my sea career,’ Captain Borrow recalls. ‘I went up to check out the ship and I was pretty excited. I kept thinking that I had found my thing; I found my calling.’

Joining the Mercy Ship as Third Officer, Borrow travelled to Papua New Guinea on a three-month assignment and was enthralled by the experience. After hearing about the trip, his partner Lee-Anne, who was a dietitian and had just finished her master’s degree in nutrition, was also eager to join.

Borrow Family in front of the funnel

After the couple married in 2001, they boarded the now-retired Caribbean Mercy, where Borrow volunteered as Chief Officer before moving on to the original Mercy Ship, Anastasis, in 2005, where the couple raised their first son for the first 18 months of his life.

Eventually ,they returned to Australia to have their second son. After 8 years of being at home and working ashore Borrow knew it was time to return to Mercy Ships. 

The Borrow family joined the current flagship, Africa Mercy, in Madagascar in 2015, allowing John to claim that he’s been the Chief Officer on every Mercy Ship except for one.

He took over as Captain in August 2016 and three years’ service took the family to Benin, Cameroon and Guinea. Lee-Anne used her professional skills in the Mercy Ships Infant Feeding Programme while their boys attended the onboard school for crew children. In each port Lee-Anne worked with the Mums of severely underweight babies. These infants with cleft palates require additional nutrition so they would be strong enough to undergo plastic surgery to reconstruct their clefts.

Captain Borrow and his family have now returned home, leaving a vacancy in his role.

‘We are struggling right now to find long term Deck Officers, especially Chief Officers and Captains. These roles are not only critical for the safe operation of the ship, but also to lead our deck crew, which are mostly Africans and the nicest, most gentle, respectful bunch of people you’re ever likely to meet.’

‘Our three years on board the Africa Mercy has been an amazing experience and we’ve met some truly inspiring people here, all with the same goal to help those not as lucky as we are. Once you see this level of pain and suffering you cannot be unaffected. You cannot ignore it, something changes, and you have to help.’

Captain John Borrow and Dietitian Lee-Anne Borrow

Thanks to Professional Skipper magazine for publishing this story

2019 January

When M’Mah was born, her mother had a simple wish for her daughter’s life. ‘I want her to be like a diamond — to shine bright,’ she said.

Unfortunately for most of M’Mah’s life, the light inside her was overshadowed by the neurofibroma growing on her face.

When she was just a baby, her parents noticed a small lump and dark hairs growing above her left eye. By the time she was five years old, M’Mah’s neurofibroma was drooping over her forehead like a sac and beginning to dislocate her eye.

Over time, more lumps started to develop on her skull and upper lip, causing severe swelling. Even at her young age, other kids noticed M’Mah’s differences, which led to bullying and name-calling. They would call her ‘sick’ and avoid playing with her because they were afraid of her.

As a result, she was spending her childhood on the sidelines. She refused to go to school, even though her parents desperately wanted her to have an education. ‘She was so scared… she said everybody would laugh at her,’ said M’Mah’s mother.

With a heavy shroud of insecurity and fear surrounding M’Mah, it was hard to see the sweet, playful girl inside, waiting to be let out.

The family was poor and struggled to provide enough food for their two children, so an expensive, complicated surgery was out of the question. Her parents prayed every day for healing for their daughter.

When they heard about Mercy Ships, M’Mah’s mother was overjoyed. It was the first time that she’d dared to believe her daughter might receive surgery. The family travelled for hours to get to the Africa Mercy, but the end goal was worth every arduous mile.

Soon, a volunteer plastic surgeon specialising in neurofibromas removed the tumour M’Mah had carried for years.

Receptionist Esther Harrington with M-Mah

In the weeks following her operation, M’Mah spent time on board being showered in love and friendship by the nurses, crew and other patients. Esther from Taupo spent many hours playing with the little girl to help her pass away the hours as she recovered from her massive surgery. Freed from worry, the sweet five-year-old slowly emerged from her shell, and her inner diamond began ‘to shine through.

Esther says that on days when I couldn’t make it down to the hospital to play with her, M’Mah asked the translators where her special friend was.

‘One day I went to the hospital just to cuddle her because she was having a bad day. Things were sore, and she was tired. My heart broke as I held her, listening to her deep sobs, and feeling her tears on my arm. But she knew she was safe there. We sat in our own little bubble, and that was enough. I’ve learnt so much about courage and bravery from these little warriors.’

Thanks to her growing confidence, M’Mah is no longer afraid to start school and will begin her education next year.

‘When we came to the ship for the first time, I was just thanking God over and over,’ said M’Mah’s mother. ‘There is no gift greater than good health.’

Written by: Rose Talbot

2019 January

Physiotherapist from Hawkes Bay

As a sports therapist with 17 years’ experience, Emma has many high profile clients including an impressive list of All Blacks. What is equally impressive is her commitment to give her best, personally and professionally, to people in extreme poverty in West Africa.

This is Emma’s first experience with Mercy Ships. She read about the charity in various magazines and thought the concept of using her skills in sounded ‘amazing’. Emma worked extensively with Sema after surgery straightened his legs. It was her job to reteach him how to walk.

‘I greet, hug and ‘high five’ each patient numerous times each rehab session,’ shares Emma. ‘Asaqui’ (high five or put it there in Susu) was the first word I learnt here in Guinea.’

‘I tell each patient and their caregivers how awesome they are, how proud they should be of their son/daughter/niece/nephew/neighbour, and how well they are working at doing the exercises.’ Emma works hard to communicate through her translator to each child that she understands how tough the operation was, and how tough the exercises are. She reminds each patient that they are incredible and unique. 

The rehab team perform their roles to the highest possible standard by using clinical reasoning, discussing each case, and by working hard to put energy and expertise into every child. ‘We want to ensure each patient has the best possible outcome after surgery.’ Emma believes the work of Mercy Ships is extremely important to the nations the NGO serves. ‘There are no orthopaedics surgeons, nor rehab teams nor physios who provide this treatment in Guinea. This means all the lower limb deformities the children here have would go untreated and worsen as they grow – therefore affecting their quality of life, their family’s quality of life, including their opportunity for education and marriage.’

‘I turn up to work each day and can’t wait to work and play with these amazing, tough and beautiful humans. My job is most definitely one of the best on the Africa Mercy.’

2019 January

Purser from Matamata.

We meet Janine as she drives Dr Neil Thomson from the Mercy Ship to Alya’s village. She had worked a lot of overtime this week in her role as the Mercy Ships Purser, but she is happy to negotiate the ship’s 4WD through the hectic, erratic traffic of Conakry in order to find the little boy who had surgery onboard five years ago.

Janine is the longest serving of the Kiwi crew with seven years of volunteer work and ten nations under her belt. She works directly under the Captain and deals with many of the ship’s legalities including immigration and customs. Imagine transporting medical supplies and food stores for a hospital and 450 crew members a world away – the details and headaches are all part of her job that strategically undergirds the ability of this vessel of mercy to serve the surgical needs of Africa’s poor. ‘I am forever changed,’ she says, ‘mostly for the better I think. It has opened up my eyes and given me a thirst to learn more about who I am and about who God is. Also, I am more prepared now to be pulled way out of my comfort zone – way more than when I first came to the ship.’

While Janine’s role deals primarily with the legalities of bringing a ship, a crew and supplies in and out of port, she reflects on the ‘little things’ that stick in her mind as meaningful moments; ‘The DHL delivery guy that I laugh and joke with every few days, the local people that are employed to work in my department that are real prayer warriors, our Gurkha who brings me a cup of Chai when I am standing on the gangway watching for a delivery truck to find its way to us, the albino African guy that always says hello and shakes my hand when I am waiting for new crewmembers to arrive inside an airport. It’s the little things that I tend to remember and they always involve people and their hearts. The people of Africa are just like you and me – they just want the opportunity to work hard to provide for their families and they want to be loved.’

2019 January

Wound Care Nurse and IT Specialist from Mt Eden.

Steph’s previous experience serving onboard the hospital ship as a ward nurse paved the way for her to return into the role of wound care coordinator – an extremely demanding and highly skilled role. It’s the job of Steph and her team to change the wound dressings for patients post-surgery.

Particularly for the patients who have had skin grafts reconstruction after surgery to release burn scars, this can be a painful ordeal. The wound care team have learned to synchronise their work, particularly with their youngest charges; one entertaining and distracting the patient with songs, games and surprises while the other dresses the wound. Steph’s gentle, fun manner and huge smile means even the smallest children develop a level of trust that enables them to undergo this tough procedure to bring about complete healing.

The couple are on board this time for the entire 10-month Guinea field service.

Initially volunteering as an IT specialist, Jonathan’s experience in the Health Care IT sector saw him recently transfer into the development and maintenance of the onboard hospital’s information systems.  As planning and measurement are an increasingly important part of the implementation and evaluation of the services Mercy Ships provides in each field service, this hidden role provides much of the data required to effectively measure the impact of the work Mercy Ships does- and to dream and accurately plan for future field services. Read more about Jonathan’s tech work in ITBrief

2019 January

Operating Theatre Nurse from Glendene.

She was still in nursing school when the Mercy Ship bug first bit Lindsey. ‘I was instantly drawn to the vision of Mercy Ships and I just knew I had to serve on board one day,’ she reflects.

In November 2018, the dreamed-of opportunity was finally a reality as Lindsey flew into Conakry, Guinea to join the crew as an operating theatre nurse for three weeks. She was rostered onto duty in each of the hospital ship’s five operating theatres that were performing orthopaedic and maxilla-facial surgery at the time. She loved working with the crew from so many different nations. Some shifts she was assigned to Dr Neil Thomson’s operating theatre, and her take away from that experience was, ‘I can truthfully say he is the nicest surgeon I have ever worked with.’

The highlights for Lindsey included the opportunity to get to know the patients outside of theatre, while they were awake – a very unusual experience for an operating theatre nurse!

‘I recall a female teenager we operated on who had a large, growing parotid gland to the right of her face,’ explains Lindsey. ‘I went to visit her in the ward during the evening. Her face was bandaged, and she told me her story. The tumour had been was growing for the past seven years and had socially impacted her life. She enjoyed studying science and English but stopped attending school because she was ridiculed and stared at by her peers. As I was speaking with her, a shy smile appeared on her face. She told me that when she leaves the hospital she is going to return to school because then she will look beautiful and nobody will stare at her.

‘I was reminded of why I do what I do. It was such a beautiful moment that I shared with her.’

2019 January

Electronics tech from Lyttleton.

‘I wanted to combine my skills and find a practical way I can serve God and help the needy of this world,’ explains Fil. He is one of the hidden heroes aboard the Mercy Ship – for seven months he is filling an engineering role that is vital to the Mercy Ship functioning, but one that almost never springs to mind when you think hospital ship.  ‘My role on the ship takes care of the control systems for fire, lights, air conditioning, and other systems that relate to electronics.’

Fil loves being part of the unique, international crew. ‘In the Community on board we have many different cultures all coming from different belief systems. We are able to work alongside others, I think that’s something you don’t get anywhere else, with such a broad spectrum of age and experience. As I got to know the crew that I work alongside with, I learnt that more about the stories that brought them there, and the way they view God and life.’

‘My days on the ship is never the same. The majority of my work is taken up by the fire detection system. On top of that, we have ship managing software that

helps us prioritise the maintenance of ships equipment, so we have regular work come up too. Faultfinding a giant network of electrical and electronic circuitry can be overwhelming. I am thankful for my previous experience which has taught me how to approach such situations.’

‘My work often takes me all over the ship, so working in the hospital is part of daily activities. At first I found it really hard working amongst people who are either going to or have had surgery. After a while, I started to see hope being restored, especially in the kids, when their energy and smiles on their faces spring back.’

‘The awesome thing about Mercy Ships before anything else is that we will take care of [our patients’] physical needs. No matter what background you come from, you can leave here better than you came. People are loved no matter what.’