Navy skills for Africa

A passion for ships and a love for a good cause pointed former Commander Larry Robbins towards Mercy Ships, a charity dedicated to medical treatment in the world’s poorest countries. He talks to Navy Today about his work.

The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship, and the maritime crew play a vital role in the delivery of healthcare services to Africa's poor
Larry Robbins served as navigation officer for the voyage from Tenerife to Brazziville, Republic of Congo

In 2009, when Larry Robbins was asked if he’d like to be on the board of Mercy Ships NZ, he didn’t have to think about it for long.

The retired naval officer and former Commanding Officer of HMNZS MONOWAI had been a long-time “modest” supporter of Mercy Ships, both during his 26-year naval career and after, as Chief Executive Officer of the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

Mercy Ships is a 40-year-old international charity that deploys hospital ships to countries where medical treatment is scarce. They deliver free healthcare services – including surgical treatment.

In 2005 Mr Robbins met Lord Ian McColl, a Vice-Chairman with Mercy Ships International, at the museum. His lordship, also a surgeon volunteer on hospital ships at the time, made a strong impression on him. Later, after retiring from the museum, Mr Robbins was invited to a MSNZ  function and met the Director of Mercy Ships New Zealand. They realised they had met before, in 1997 when MONOWAI was about to be decommissioned and Mercy Ships were eyeing up whether to bid to take her over. A short while after the function he was approached to join the board.

 

Each Mercy Ships volunteer crew member has a passion to serve the poor and uses their skills to help the hospital ship achieve that end
Larry Robbins greets Ebenezer, a maxillofacial patient

“I didn’t have to think about it very much,” says Mr Robbins. “My wife and I had been supporters, and I had met Lord McColl. He was such a lovely man. I

thought, if he’s the mark of the organisation, it’s worth belonging to.”

But three years in, he realised he was the only board member who hadn’t done a crew stint on MV Africa Mercy, the largest and newest ship in the Mercy Ships fleet, and the largest non-governmental floating hospital in the world. The ship spends 10 months a year in Africa, performing up to 2,000 surgeries. It is currently in Guinea; next year it will be in Senegal.

Mr Robbins had a Second Mate’s qualification, albeit 40 years out of date, courtesy of his time in the British Merchant Navy in the seventies. Fed up with unions, he had emigrated to New Zealand in 1974 to join the Royal New Zealand Navy, full of “the optimism of youth”, he says. “So I spoke to Maritime New Zealand and did some courses to get my second mate’s ticket revalidated.”

He ended up doing five tours of duty in Africa Mercy, with tours lasting for up to three months. In total, he’s done 13 months at sea over five years. He’s been Third Officer, Second Officer and – for five glorious weeks in the Canary Islands – second officer, acting Chief Officer, and acting Master. “It was great fun being a second officer, and using my navigation skills. It was a lot more fun than being in command would have been, to be honest.”

 

Mercy Ships operates the world's largest civilian hospital shipOfficers have single cabins or family quarters on board, and there’s even a fully accredited school for children. But Mr Robbins’ wife says: “Ships are your thing.”

It meant Mr Robbins got to see, first hand, how Mercy Ships changed lives in Africa.

“It’s amazing seeing the work they do,” he says. “With Africa Mercy, the hospital and ship are very much intertwined. So as a deck officer, you walk through the hospital on rounds, you see the patients, and you see the horrendous conditions they come from.”

In the Congo, he remembers a woman called Grace, who had a massive facial tumour. “We were in the Congo for four months, and she was our first patient on board. She was reasonably philosophical about her tumour, but came to have it treated. She had an operation, and they rebuilt her jaw. She just blossomed afterwards. It was just wonderful to see.

“It’s the difference they make in the lives of people, who have very little in the way of health care. There’s a flow-on effect to families. For instance, if a child can’t walk, the parents put a lot of time and effort into looking after that child. They can’t go out and earn a living. One family we met, the father had cataracts, and the child couldn’t go school because he had to look after his father. His father got his sight back, and the kid could go to school.”

Mr Robbins observes that in New Zealand hospitals, nursing staff come and go. “On Africa Mercy, nurses have got the time to get to know the patients, because the nurses are living on the ship. Everybody on the ship can adopt a patient. I would talk to them as I was doing my rounds.”

On one trip there were 34 nationalities among the crew, with 12 New Zealanders on board. “There’s a tremendous sense of community and equality. The captain and officers mix and mingle with everybody, and it’s communal dining.”

The hardest volunteers to recruit are those in the technical trades, he says. “And officers need to have a merchant qualification.”

Mr Robbins has just retired as board chair of Mercy Ships NZ, a role he had for three years. His Second Mate’s ticket expired last year, and he doesn’t intend to renew. But his involvement with the charity continues, with speaking tours. He’s qualified as a ship’s security officer and hopes to return to Africa Mercy in that capacity. “I just like ships,” he says.

 

As of last month, Mercy Ships has provided 100,000 free surgical procedures in 40 years of service. These include cleft lip and palate repairs, cataract removal, orthopaedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repairs.

Each year, around 1,000 people from up to 40 nations, including New Zealand, volunteer their skills and expertise with Mercy Ships. Professionals like officers, seamen, engineers, surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, cooks, and teachers donate their time and skills to the effort.

Mercy Ships are always in need of maritime crew. Opportunities are both short term (a couple of months) through to long term for the senior and management roles.

BY ANDREW BONALLACK, PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION FROM NAVY TODAY

Maritime and naval-trained volunteers help mercy Ships provide free essential surgery for Africa's poor