Walking into a Better Future:

A Closer Look at the Mercy Ships Orthopaedic Program

Ousseynou and Assane, brothers, with their mother before surgery.

In New Zealand, we are most familiar the orthopaedic surgery required by our older population, but during each field service in Africa one of the surgical specialties we focus on is Paediatric Orthopaedics. Children come onboard our ships to receive life-altering surgery to correct conditions in their legs and feet. Surgery is typically followed by many weeks of rehabilitation, where our volunteer physical therapists walk patients through every step of recovery. Time and again, we see orthopaedic surgeries freeing our patients into a lifetime unburdened by disability and social stigma. We’ve said it before, and it’s infinitely worth repeating: Free surgery is not the finish line… it’s just the beginning.

For our orthopaedic patients, it’s the start of an unstoppable life. Here’s why.




Addressing a Widespread Need in Africa

Aicha, orthopaedic patient, at home before surgery.

The orthopaedic conditions we treat typically include bowed legs, “knocked” knees, quadricep contractures, and clubfoot. They are musculoskeletal leg deformities, frequently congenital conditions. Often, these are inherited medical conditions that can be exacerbated by environmental factors, like a lack of proper nutrition.

Why is the need so extreme in the countries we serve? Many families in developing countries simply can’t afford or can’t access surgical care to treat the condition at an early stage, whether because of a lack of resources or a lack of adequate care in their country. In most cases, the delay of proper treatment increases the severity of the child’s disability.

The effects of an untreated orthopaedic condition can be devastating. Children suffering from these conditions often find it challenging to do activities like other kids their age, such as walking, running, or playing sports. Because it’s difficult to walk far distances, many of the patients we see find it difficult to regularly go to school. This can lead children to become social outcasts and end their education early — limiting their opportunity to make a living and become independent as adults.

Empowering Patients to Walk into Their Destinies

Mercy Ships strives to meet this need directly by offering free orthopaedic surgery onboard our hospital ships. Our orthopaedic surgical program welcomes children and adolescents suffering from a deformity to receive safe surgery and strengthen their newly straightened legs through our rehab program. The result is so much more than seeing children learn to walk again. We see patients who are unlocked to pursue their full destinies — to return to school, re-engage with society, and regain their confidence after years of feeling different.

Our orthopaedic surgical program has transformed the future of hundreds of patients, like Ulrich and Satou.

Ulrich, a 12-year-old boy from Cameroon, had lived with quadricep contractures for his entire childhood. This condition meant his bones and muscles grew at different rates. Without treatment, his legs had bent almost entirely backwards. He could only walk balancing on his hands and feet, with the help of homemade crutches to get around.

After surgery and physical therapy on the Africa Mercy, Ulrich was able to stand straight for the first time in years, granting his biggest dream of “being tall like the other boys.”

For 8-year-old Satou, surgery on the Africa Mercy was the answer to her family’s years of worrying and praying. Satou’s bowed legs had begun to bend when she was four years old, and the condition worsened over time until she had a hard time running or even walking. Satou had to be carried to school every day. After the operation to straighten her legs, Satou is full of joy and renewed hope for the future.

Training Local Professionals to Meet the Need

Djimby, orthopedic patient, in her rehab session.

Mercy Ships orthopaedic programs don’t end with surgery onboard our hospital ships. We also aim to invest in each host nation’s healthcare systems through our Medical Capacity Building programs.

Each year, around 100,000 babies around the world are born with a clubfoot. In developed countries, this condition is typically treated right away. Under-resourced countries account for 80% of untreated clubfoot conditions. This is where the Ponseti casting method comes in.

Our Ponseti training program partners with local healthcare professionals, equipping them to answer the need for effective clubfoot treatment in their own countries.

Considered the “universal standard” in non-invasive clubfoot correction, the low-cost Ponseti method has a 98% success rate in correcting clubfoot. Mercy Ships trains local surgeons to use this method effectively and trains local partners to manufacture braces for long-term correction.

The Ponseti program has had an impact on many participants like Dr Tsatedem, an orthopaedic surgeon from Cameroon. After receiving training with Mercy Ships in his home country, he travelled to Guinea, West Africa the following year to return to our Ponseti program. This time he helped train a new group of participants. He is using his Ponseti method to not only treat patients but to educate and train many other professionals to do the same.

In the Words of Our Orthopaedic Program Volunteers

 Dr Frank Haydon, an orthopaedic surgeon from the U.S. periodically returned to volunteer with Mercy Ships for nearly a decade. During his years onboard, he performed around 650 surgeries, resulting in many children discovering a new future as they finally walked with straight legs.

“I think most people in America are disconnected from the plight of the poor and are unaware of how well off we are. Our poorest have access to basic healthcare. I feel a duty to provide care and education where it is needed,” said Dr Frank. “[As a Mercy Ships volunteer] you will have a good chance of finding the answer to the basic question of, ‘What is my purpose in life?’”

Volunteers like Aisling Russell (U.K.), the Clubfoot Program Manager during our 2019 field service in Guinea, also got a front-row seat to life-changing transformation. As she led the Ponseti program, she was able to witness its direct impact on patients and training participants alike.

“The Ponseti Method of treating clubfoot is the gold standard treatment method used worldwide. Children who complete treatment are then free from deformity and a life of disability,” said Aisling. “The transformation is obvious, but the lifelong impact is that these children then have a chance to live a life free of shame and the opportunity to work and contribute to their community.”

Discover Your Purpose Today

You can be part of bringing hope and healing to patients like Satou, Ulrich, and so many others! Would you help us continue empowering healthcare professionals and training the next generation of surgeons by using your skills in the team that makes mercy happen?

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships