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Surgeon from Nelson.

Photo credit: Media Stockade

Surfer, botanist, ENT surgeon. After volunteering four times with Mercy Ships in West Africa, Dr Neil Thomson says, ‘You can never be the same after serving onboard. Every time it has a different flavour.’

He is known as ‘Dr Neil’ onboard the hospital ship. The title, a unique mix of friendly and professional, perfectly reflects the Mercy Ships community where the like-minded 450-strong volunteer crew lives, works and socialises together during each 10-month field assignment in West Africa.

This is tour-of-duty is a stand-out one for Dr Neil. He is once again presented with cases that stretch him to the limit professionally – for many cases the removal of huge, complex, benign yet life-threatening tumours from the face and neck. His patients had no hope of accessing life-saving surgery until Mercy Ships came to town offering free care. But this time Dr Neil hopes for the opportunity to visit one of his former surgical patients, a young boy named Alya. Can they find him five years later in post-Ebola Guinea? Did the free surgery on the Mercy Ship save and transform the eight-year-old’s life? Dr Neil has many questions as he and Janine Boyes, the ship’s Purser from Matamata, travel to the village where they heard Alya is now living with his family.

The father of a son himself, Dr Neil is hugely impacted by meeting Alya again. ‘He engaged my eyes and didn’t let go! That’s a powerful thing for a 12-year-old boy,’ he reflected. ‘Alya is an intelligent and sensitive boy who had looked death right in the face.’

Read Alya’s story


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Ward Nurse from Lower Hutt.

To the long term crew onboard Robyn is affectionately known as a ‘repeat offender’. This Guinea field service was her eighth self-funded, three-month trip volunteering on the Mercy Ship providing post-operative surgical care during the field services the hospital ship was docked in Congo, Benin, Madagascar, Cameroon and Guinea.

‘I normally nurse adults,’ Robyn explains, ‘but looking after children here adds to the best part of it. They just become part of you and I miss them terribly when they are discharged from the ship wards.’ Her work in Guinea included the care of children like Sema, who received major surgery to correct his extremely bowed legs. Sometimes she was assigned to the ‘burns’ ward where both children and adults recovered after surgery released joints previously immobilised by deep scars resulting from horrendous burns. Robyn’s early work onboard also included the care of girls and women receiving restorative surgery after traumatic birth injuries. In each ward, Robyn treated and ‘loved-on’ the patents in a way that is uniquely Mercy Ships.

See Friday’s TVNZ BREAKFAST interview with Robyn here


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Receptionist from Taupō.

At home she’s a commercial pilot and flight instructor, onboard she works in reception where, under the oversight of the Captain, she helps staff the essential communications hub of the Mercy Ship 24/7.‘I am volunteering with Mercy Ships because my heart is to help people in whatever capacity I can,’ explains the 24-year-old. ‘Our aim is to bring some aid and to strengthen, and train their health care providers and systems. We can help path the way for Guinea to heal itself. Unless we do, when we leave nothing will change.’

While not on duty, one of Esther’s favourite things to do is be a ‘buddy’ to one of the paediatric patients onboard for surgery. Five-year-old M’Muh, pictured here with Esther, had a long recovery after free surgery removed the benign growth that drooped over her forehead like a sack and was beginning to dislodge her eye. In the weeks following M’Muh’s operation, Esther’s TLC and fun-loving games worked alongside state-of-the-art medical care to see the little girl emerge from her shell of rejection and meet the world with a grin.

Esther and M’Mah

Read M’Muh’s story here

‘The work that Mercy Ships is doing is of insurmountable importance,’ reflects Esther. ‘The ripple effect that Mercy Ships has on the nations we visit is immeasurable. When people receive aid from the ship, they don’t keep it a secret. They tell anyone and everyone, and it spreads joy and hope. And hope is one of the most powerful things a broken nation can hold onto.’

Since the Sunday team was on board, Esther took up a new role in the ship’s housekeeping department. She totally loves the fun working with her international crewmates swabbing the decks and keep the ship in, well, ship-shape.


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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.


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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.’


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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.’


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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


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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.’


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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.’

 

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Screening nurse from Auckland. You won’t see Vivien in the SUNDAY programme because she was indispensable in another location. Vivien serves in one of the most challenging roles onboard the Mercy Ship – the experienced paediatric nurse works in the screening team. It is their job to triage the multiplied thousands of hopeful, desperate people seeking medical help. For most, Mercy Ships is their last hope.

The screening team’s days are long and extremely demanding. Their professionalism, maturity and faith is taxed to the limit as they must determine if a case is considered operable. If not, the person must be told – honestly, compassionately, eye to eye and with the greatest respect, that there is no help available. But for thousands every year, the beautiful words ‘We can help you’ are life-changing.