‘God took a huge risk’ – that’s the way Don Stephens, founder of Mercy Ships, describes the beginning of a story that has touched millions of the world’s poorest people. Watch the video spanning 40 years of healing’


A devastating hurricane, meeting Mother Teresa and the birth of a special needs son drove a God-given dream that would inspire bringing hope and healing to the world’s poorest people. Since 1978 Don and Deyon Stephens have been joined by thousands of huge-hearted volunteers from across the globe. They have quite simply made mercy happen for thousands of people in extreme poverty who had no other hope.

To date, the Mercy Ships crew have provided more than 100,000 free surgergical procedures in developing nations. 2019/2020 the Africa Mercy is docked in Senegal, West Africa where she will remain for 10 months. The volunteer crew are performing surgeries, mentoring local health care professionals, wrapping the broken in love and acceptance, and praying for all those who in their care. Together the impact is transformational.

Don launched Mercy Ships – a floating hospital for the poor – in Switzerland in 1978. National offices opened around the world to get – and keep – the ship afloat with donations and volunteers. New Zealand came on board in 1982 supporting the first Mercy Ship Anastasis during its year of Pacific field work – and Kiwis have been involved ever since.

Around 40 volunteers from New Zealand serve on board the Mercy Ship every year in medical, maritime and operational roles every year, while thousands of others sponsor surgeries and health care programmes. The New Zealand office raises funds, recruits volunteers and brings the current ship, Africa Mercy to the attention of Kiwis.


The elderly woman struggled to see as she slowly made her way up the Anastasis gangway. The ship’s crew were full of anticipation, hoping to catch a glimpse of the FIRST PATIENT to have surgery on a Mercy Ship’

‘Señora Refugio Camacho shuffled up the gangway, her daughter hovering by her side, the rolling and rocking of the ship feeling, no doubt, like the recent earthquake. The ship’s crew gathered near the gangway, wanting to catch a glimpse of their first surgery patient.

She was 68 years old, face lined, grey wisps of hair escaping from her bun, hands calloused and arthritic, eyes dull with fading years and cloudy with cataracts. And she was stepping into a strange world, a big hospital ship that had anchored near her home after the Mexico earthquake.

With a red ink thumbprint, she signed the patient consent form, donned a yellow paper gown and surgical cap, and with a final shaky smile at her daughter’s retreating touch, she was led into surgery. An assortment of medical professionals from Mexico and around the world who had arrived after Mercy Ships put out a call for expert help, all crowded into the room for this history in the making as Dr Bob Dyer performed the cataract surgery, assisted by Dr Gary Parker.’

Lydia Smith was one of the nurses. She recalls, ‘I remember the sense of awe and gratitude to God as I stepped away from the operating table allowing the recovery room nurses to take over the care of the our patient – a little Mexican lady having cataract removal under local anaesthetic. We had just completed the first surgery on board the Anastasis . I had been the scrub nurse, handing the eye surgeon and his assistant the sterile instruments and working to reassure and maintain the comfort of the patient.’

The next morning the medical team excitedly gathered around Señora Camacho to watch Dr Dyer carefully remove the eye bandages.

‘As the first eye patch fell away, Señora Camacho looked toward her daughter and gasped, ‘Yo puedo ver! Yo puedo ver!’I can see! I can see! She grabbed Dr Dyer’s hand, ‘Gracias! Gracias!’

The Mercy Ship was now, finally, a hospital ship.’ *

Lydia reflects, ‘We were seeing the promise given to those who had pioneered the ministry fulfilled before our very eyes. Sight was restored to the blind. It was an awesome moment and I feel very honoured to have been on the first surgical team operating on board. This was rewarding and challenging work that fulfilled dreams I had held for many years.’

After five years of volunteer toil converting the former cruise liner into a floating hospital, in Lazaro Cardenus, Mexico on 17 February 1987, Señora Camacho became the first patient to receive what now numbers more than 95,000 free surgeries provided by Mercy Ships for people living in poverty.

*Includes excerpt from ‘Ships of Mercy’ by Founder, Don Stephens


‘They called the teenager The Witch of Freetown because of the tumour that grew from her face. People found Aminata terrifying and yelled curses at her. Ostracised by family and friends she was sick, penniless and alone.

The 19-year-old lost her seamstress business; people were terrified of the tumour that grew from her jaw. Isolated and unwell, she struggled to make ends meet selling peeled oranges on the street.

Then one night she dreamed about a big, gleaming-white ship that was coming to bring her healing. Months later the answer to Aminata’s prayers arrived into the port of Freetown – the Mercy Ship Anastasis. It also brought her a life-long friend.

Aminata joined the hundreds seeking hope for their conditions. She stood patiently in line and spoke with difficulty around the tumour, now the size of a watermelon. That day changed her life. She heard the beautiful words, We can help you!

Crew member Sandy developed a special friendship with Aminata. It took months after her tumour was removed for Aminata’s face to heal and she looked forward to Sandy’s visits in the ward. Then Aminata received further surgery to have her jaw reconstructed. Sandy often visited when she wasn’t on a shift at the reception desk.

The women were close in age and spent many hours together talking, laughing and becoming true friends. Through love and care, Aminata was being healed body, soul and spirit. After her surgery, her husband Felix returned to her, but many tears were shed when it was time for the Mercy Ship to leave port.

Ten years later, Sandy made a surprise visit to Sierra Leone to see Aminata in 2003. It was just like old times for the friends, and they still keep in touch.

‘I last heard from Aminata when they called me in the middle of the night, early in 2018,’ Sandy mentioned recently. ‘She had also called over a year ago to let me know she was safe after the Ebola crisis.’

Sandy is convinced of three facts – friendships shape our lives; giving has its own reward, and it’s possible to make a difference in a world of need.


‘Children seemed to enjoy tripping and hitting me because I couldn’t see,’ Benigno explained. Bilateral cataracts had so reduced his sight that he could hardly see them coming. ‘So my father took me out of school when I was 8.’

At the turn of the millennium, there were no special services for the blind in Benigno’s remote village in Guatemala. The teenager’s parents cared for him, leading him wherever he needed to go – all day, every day, without exception. Life on their small farm was limited. But his parents’ main concern was not for the present, but for his future. Who would care for their son when they were gone?

A surgery in the city to restore Benigno’s sight cost over $1,000 in 2001. For a young man who couldn’t work, whose father made $3.00 a day, it was simply beyond their reach.

Then someone told Benigno some remarkable news. ‘I heard there’s a ship in Puerto Quetzal offering free eye surgeries!’ Benigno and his cousin rode a bus for five hours to reach the port city where the Caribbean Mercywas anchored.

Benigno received cataract surgery onboard to restore sight in both his eyes. His mother cried when he returned, walking to their home without a guide for the first time since he was a little child. Everyone in the neighbourhood came to see him. ‘We know that this is from God. We never thought that he would be able to see again,’ his mother declared.

After his final surgery check up, Benigno pulled his official yet redundant ID card from his pocket.‘It says I’m blind,’ he stated, grinning at the irony.


Paul Pascal arrived as a feather-light bundle cradled in his desperate mother’s arms. His skin was paper-thin, his body tiny. At three months he weighed two kilos – less than a newborn.

Paul Pascal was born with a cleft lip that disfigured his face and a cleft palate that made it impossible to breastfeed properly. His mother watched helplessly as he grew thinner and weaker. People around her called him a monster.

His mother was scared. ‘We thought he would die.’ But her love knew no bounds as she rocked her tiny, hungry, crying baby through long nights. Then she heard that hope had arrived in port.

As soon as the Africa Mercy medical crew in Cameroon examined Paul Pascal they recognised his condition was critical. They rushed him and his Mum on board before the hospital officially opened to monitor his temperature and feeding.

It was touch-and-go for a few days before the little boy began to turn the corner. Then once he was considered safe to leave the hospital, dieticians checked Paul Pascal regularly to track his growth, measure the size of his head, arms and legs, assess his feeding. They continued to encourage his Mum and suggest methods for her to help Paul Pascal have a healthy weight gain.

Gradually Paul began to change. His gaunt face grew round cheeks. His hair grew thick and healthy, and his listless eyes were now content as he grew stronger.

Only 3 months later and weighing 6.4 kg, Paul Pascal was strong enough to undergo the first surgery to restore his cleft lip. His Mum worked hard to help Paul Pascal gain catch-up weight and reach the normal height to weight ratio. In another five months, he was the size of an average 11-month-old and strong enough to have his cleft palate restored. The operation connected the muscles of his soft palate and closed the gap in the roof of his mouth, enabling him to eat and speak normally as he grows up.

Just a few weeks later in 2018, Paul Pascal’s post-op check saw him tip the scales at over 9 kg! No one would recognise the emaciated baby they had first seen. Paul Pascal’s journey to healing was complete and his future is changed forever.


Where Hasanatu comes from, the question is not what caused her tumour, but rather, who caused it? Here, suspicion, distrust and fear are the constant companions of those suffering from disfiguring disease.Was she cursed?

Long-time crew member Susan Parker shares her journey with Hasanatu, who became affectionately known in the wards as Mama H.

‘Meet Hasanatu from the hinterlands of Guinea.

I first saw her a few weeks ago in our maxillofacial ward. I was there to visit a patient in an adjacent bed, but couldn’t help noticing those beautifully painted pink nails!

‘You might be wondering what causes a giant tumour such as this? But where Hasanatu comes from, the question is not what caused her tumour, but rather, who caused it? Here, suspicion, distrust and fear are the constant companions of those suffering from disfiguring disease. Was she cursed? Were the ancestors unhappy with her behaviour? What terrible act did she commit to bring such a thing about? Over time, as the tumour grew, Hasanatu felt herself pushed further and further towards the fringes of her community, until one day it seemed as if she were no longer human.

Which brings me back to the pink painted nails.

Hasanatu spent a couple of days, prior to being admitted, at our HOPE* Centre about a mile down the road from the ship. The HOPE Centre is something like a youth hostel for our patients who come from outside the capital city of Conakry, where we’re docked. The HOPE Centre was renovated and is staffed by our crew — so that patients who arrive early for surgery, or need to stay postoperatively for physiotherapy or further healing will have a safe and clean environment in which to wait.

It seems that one of our crew members at the HOPE Centre painted Hasanatu’s nails bright pink while she waited for her surgical date. Someone thought she was in need of a little nail polish. Someone thought she was worth it.

I remember reading an article about Mother Teresa in a British newspaper shortly after Gary and I were married. The column had a hard, cynical edge to it. In essence, the reporter wanted the reader to know that Mother Teresa was wasting her time picking up half-dead beggars from Calcutta’s streets and providing them with a clean and safe environment in which to die. ‘What good is she doing?’ he asked. ‘She doesn’t have a medical degree. She can’t make them well. She isn’t involved in training or development or capacity building of any kind. The world is no better for the work she does. What difference does it make?’

What difference does it make? Ask Hasanatu.

Because sometimes the difference between being shunned and feeling human again is found in a bottle of bright pink nail polish.’

*Hospital OutPatient Extension Centre

Susan’s blog


She arrived to the Mercy Ship Anastasis with a definite air of expectation, because for over 50 years Felisia had lived without a nose.

When she was just a teenager, a painful wound appeared on Felisia’s arm. She credits this as the beginning of her suffering. After three months the wound almost covered her entire arm. Felisia’s parents took her from one traditional healer to the next, and in the following three years spent all their money in the futile quest for help. She says her anguish was perpetrated by the treatment by the Beninese village witchdoctors.

When the wound on her arm seemed to be healing, Felisia felt a similar malaise on her head. Within days her nose throbbed with pain. After four years of suffering, the pain disappeared – along with her nose!

Through a series of operations onboard the Anastasis in 2000, volunteer surgeons reconstructed Felisia’s face. A scalping flap was created from her forehead to build her a completely new nose.

After the many weeks of healing, Felisia was thrilled with her restored face. She laughed and danced through the ships’ wards, flirting with the doctors and asking the men to marry her. ‘I never dreamed of this, but now I will look beautiful!’ she declared.

When she finally descended the gangway, Felisia held her head high, proudly stepped out and pointing her new nose in the direction of home.


Grace was one of the first patients up the Africa Mercy gangway in the Republic of the Congo. It was a race against time to remove the life-threatening, football-sized tumour from the 17-year-old’s face.

Grace’s journey to healing began with a social media post. A chaplain in a nation neighbouring the Republic of the Congo met Grace in a hospital and was shocked by her huge facial tumour. Counselling and praying with her, he sought help for Grace on his on blog. A reader thought Mercy Ships might be able to help. When they were told to come to the Africa Mercy for screening in 2014 they could hardly believe it. A muffled declaration of joy was all Grace could manage through the tumour that filled her mouth.

The teenager was facing death from slow suffocation caused by the tumour growing both outwards and inwards. It was an extreme case in a region where most of what we encounter is already off the chart. The Mercy Ships screening team are experts at looking beyond disfigurement and searching the soul of our patients. In Grace’s case, one nurse describes calling on all her training to look deep into Grace’s eyes and not allow her own eyes to stray inadvertently to the enormous tumour protruding from her patient’s mouth.

Grace was wrapped up in love and acceptance as she was admitted to the ship’s ward. She underwent a complex surgery to remove the 2.2 kg tumour, and some week later another to provide her with a prosthetic jaw – all without charge, all provided by professional volunteers.

As she recovered, the difference in Grace was simply remarkable. No longer was she a girl with downcast eyes – her face was beginning to shine. She could smile. She could eat properly. She could have a conversation free of overwhelming shame.

As Grace walked down the gangway headed for home, she looked like a regular sassy teenager, facing her future with new found hope and confidence.


Prayer has always played a key role in the hope and healing that Mercy Ships offers. Sometimes God’s answer to these prayers is something that surprises everyone.


Lorette knew she had glaucoma and the vision in her right eye was failing. She also knew she couldn’t do anything about it . . . the necessary surgery was too expensive. When she heard of Island Mercy was arriving in the Filipino city near her in 2004, she signed up to have her eyes checked. Perhaps they could help her.

In the clinic set up ashore, eye-care professional Femi Oni quickly recognized that if Lorette didn’t have surgery very soon, it would be too late. The operation was scheduled for three days later at a local hospital. Lorette was happy she could have her eye repaired, but deeply afraid of the surgery. Femi quietly explained another option; she could ask God to heal her.

Lorette hurried away from the clinic, looking for the nearest church. Letting herself in the unlocked door, she poured her heart out to God all evening, asking Him for healing (continues below)

The following morning she returned to the clinic. Something had happened during the night . . . her right eye could now focus! Femi examined her right eye again. ‘I must have the wrong eye,’ he thought. ‘This eye is perfect, almost like a newborn baby.’ He looked at the left eye . . . it was fine, too. Records showed it was the right eye that needed surgery, but now it was perfect. Maybe I have the wrong person! But the optical team identified her as the right patient and then confirmed that God had indeed touched her eye.

Pausing for a little while in the busy clinic, team members introduced her to Jesus, who befriends the poor and heals the sick. Lorette Cajadezo left the clinic with a new-found faith and a song in her heart, while the eye team cancelled the unnecessary surgery.

Whatever you may be facing today, don’t leave God off your list of options. Instead, put Him at the top.

Larry Mast.


Maria was doing chores in her yard in El Savador while her granddaughter played by her side. Suddenly the toddler wandered over to newly dug well – and toppled into it. Maria ran to the rim and peered down the 12- metre shaft.

Maria lowered herself into the well her little granddaughter had fallen down. She tried to dig her fingers into the small handholds, but she lost her grip and plummeted downward. Her leg broke as she hit the bottom of the well.

Miraculously, she landed beside Bianca who was cold and muddy, but unharmed. Neighbours rescued the duo, but Maria’s leg became infected and was amputated three months later. A year later, in 2000, Maria lost her hearing. Then another blow – the grandmother lost her sight to cataracts.

Blind and deaf, Maria spent most of her time in bed as she struggled to get around on her one leg. She cried a lot.

Maria’s daughter heard the Mercy Ship Caribbean Mercy was in El Salvador providing free eye surgery. So, on screening day Maria lined up with hundreds of others and she was filled with a new emotion – hope.

The day after her surgery, Maria’s eye patches were removed and she smiled broadly. She could see her family for the first time in years. Six days later she was back in line – this time at the Mercy Ships hearing clinic. The specialist fitted a hearing aid, but Maria cried ‘I can’t hear! I can’t hear anything!’ Everyone was devastated. It seemed the hearing damaged 19 years earlier was beyond repair.

Kindly Maria was led to another room where a crew member spoke to her and her family. Then Maria suddenly turned and interrupted the conversation. The family smothered each other with teary hugs as Maria’s daughter cried, ‘She CAN hear!’

Maria had been released from her prison of silence and darkness.