Paediatric nurse Sarah Ford loved volunteering onboard so much she turned all her goodbyes into SEE YOU LATERs!
Read Sarah’s story in the Taranaki Daily News here
MiNDFOOD: A heartwarming story has come to light of two nurses who served on hospital ships a century apart, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Read the MiNDFOOD article here
When operating theatre nurse Lynda Williams learned about Mercy Ships providing free essential surgeries provided to Africa’s poor, she was immediately engaged and interested in volunteering. What came as a big surprise was that her husband Bill’s trade skills were also in high demand on the hospital ship and they loved the idea of serving as a husband and wife team.
The Fielding couple has returned this week from a six-week tour-of-duty aboard the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy currently docked in Conakry, West Africa. Bill sums it up as ‘Hard work that’s great for the inner soul.’
Lynda was rostered on duty in the vessel’s six operating theatres. Her surgical teams performed tumour removal for large benign yet often life-threatening tumours, and more recently ophthalmic surgery for patients of all ages. ‘The last two weeks I contributed to the healing of people of Guinea who are blinded by cataracts by scrubbing every day in the eye theatre. Although the hours are long, and some of the cases are all day long, the crew we work with are great – surgeons and anaesthetic people even helping to mop the floors, take out the rubbish and saying thank you often!
Bill has a lifetime of trade skills in including industrial refrigeration engineering and plumbing. This experience proved to be invaluable on the Mercy Ship which not only contains a self-sufficient surgical hospital and axillary services, but is also home to 450 crew from more than 40 nations. The Africa mercy is large a town where the main industry is a hospital. Therefore Bill’s work crossed between industrial and jobs that were more domestic in nature. Bills explains, ‘I learned a lot while on board but I also brought a lifetime of engineering skills which became very useful and benefitted the ships engineering department.’
Both Lynda was impacted by the level of need they witnessed ashore Guinea. ‘There are many people in Guinea who cannot afford safe and timely medical care, as 55% of the population live on less than NZ$2.50 a day. There is a shortage of trained doctors and nurses (less than 1 surgeon per 100,000 people). Many people are malnourished and need to have vitamin supplements before and after surgery. Some children also need special feeding programmes so they are healthy enough to enable a successful surgical outcome. Infections, non-cancerous growths, and deformities, (which are not seen in the western world), can kill and maim people who have no healthcare. Children with deformities and severe burns struggle to lead a normal life and are often shamed into covering up or becoming outcasts.’
While Bill was keeping things running behind the scenes, Lynda particularly enjoyed interfacing with the patients before and after surgery. ‘I was most impressed with the very first patient that entered the maxilla-facial theatre on the first day of surgery this year. I was privileged to be the scrub nurse for her operation to remove a cyst from her jaw. The 14-year-old girl walked into the operating room by herself, turned and gave a smile and a little wave before climbing up onto the operating table for her operation. She displayed a total trust and bravery that we would be unlikely to see in our own country.’
‘All the personnel on board were there to achieve the same goal – and it wasn’t about earning money. The experience made me more humble and thankful as to where I was born and live,’ reflects Bill, who has a challenge for Kiwi tradies. ‘We are short of people in the trades to carry out maintenance work – engineers, plumbers, electricians, refrigeration engineers, welders and more.’
Lynda concludes, Volunteering with Mercy Ships has made me realise how easy it is to become comfortable and insular in my lifestyle. I have much to offer others who have so little. Getting to know faithful people from around the globe has been a highlight of this experience.’
Mercy Ships recently signed a collaborative agreement with the World Health Organization in the African Region, to improve surgery and anaesthesia services in Africa.
The agreement aims to increase access to surgical care and build capacity of health workers to strengthen surgical care delivery systems.
It was signed in Dakar, Senegal, by WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti and Dr Peter Linz, International Chief Medical Officer of Mercy Ships.
“This agreement epitomises what the Transformation Agenda in the African Region is all about – joining hands with new partners, working together towards improved, equitable access to healthcare services – to transform people’s lives, bringing hope and healing on the African continent,” said Dr Moeti.
“I hope our partnership will do what you [at Mercy Ships] do so well: provide vitally needed services for those who need it desperately, as well as building up capacity in countries.”
No one left behind
During their bilateral discussion, Mercy Ships and WHO highlighted the gaps in safe, affordable and timely access to essential surgical care, and underscored the need to ultimately work to ensure that no one is left behind.
A report published in The Lancet earlier this year found that there is a severe lack of surgical provision in African countries: the number of operations provided annually was 20 times lower than the crucial surgical volume required to meet a country’s essential surgical needs each year. Furthermore, when African surgical patients can get the surgery they need, they are twice as likely to die after their planned surgery than the global average.
In his remarks, Dr Linz said: “The solution to this daunting and complex problem will require hard work and collaboration from all stakeholders. We are hopeful that our formal collaboration with WHO will be one of those pillars in strengthening access to surgical care across Africa.”
The agreement between Mercy Ships and WHO covers a range of activities including strengthening health systems and building the capacity of health workers, providing technical assistance to the integration of surgical, obstetric and anaesthesia services in National Health Sector Strategies and Plans.
It also includes contributing to health infrastructure development and supplies in partner hospitals and clinics aligned with Mercy Ships programmes and in collaboration with country priorities, as well as documenting and disseminating surgical best practices for improving the quality of care.
Dr Linz was accompanied by Mercy Ships Ambassador for Africa – Dr Pierre M’Pele.
Pictured (l-r): Dr M’Pele, Dr Linz and Dr Moeti.
Motorcycle courier, bookbinder, English as a second language teacher, telephonist, wife and mother – Heather Provan calls herself a ‘Jill of all trades’. Shipmate is the latest role the ‘70-plus’ year-old with a thirst for adventure has added to her repertoire of experiences. Not satisfied with anything dull and routine, Mrs Provan’s most recent undertaking sees her volunteering on the crew of the world’s largest civilian hospital ship – the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy.
This is the second tour-of-duty for Mrs Provan on the Mercy Ship which provides free essential surgery to people in poverty on Africa’s West Coast. She is aboard for three months working in the hospital ship’s laundry. ‘I am a very small cog in a huge organisation, but without the small cogs working efficiently the hospital wouldn’t be possible,’ she explains.
This is the second time Mrs Provan has volunteered on board – last year she served in the dining room team 6 weeks. This year her voluntary work saw her fly into Cameroon, West Africa towards the end of the vessel’s field service.
During that 10 months in Cameroon, the Mercy Ship had provided 2,746 essential surgeries with rehabilitation services, treated more than 10,000 dental patients, and invested in the local health care structure with 1,475 local people attending Medical Capacity Building courses participants.
‘The ship is completely run on donations and by volunteer workers,’ she describes. ‘I work with people from many nations, different cultures and languages – all working in harmony,’
As the Mercy Ship was due to enter a maintenance period in the Canary Islands during her service period Mrs Provan was also able to enjoy time at sea. She had the unusual nautical experience of sailing through the Prime Meridian, crossing the Equator at 0,0. ‘Not just any old bit of the Equator,’ she states, now able to claim the title of Royal Diamond Shellback for the rare feat, with a certificate to prove it.
With support from Mahurangi Presbyterian Church, Mrs Provan will continue her volunteer work through the maintenance period in The Canary Islands, the return sea voyage to Africa, and conclude after the vessel has arrived in the new field service location of Guinea.
‘This experience satisfies my desire to help others and has given me amazing experiences and adventures,’ she reflects. ‘I feel each day is a gift from God and I must make the most of it. God is still teaching me. He has given me such blessings during my lifetime; I want to be a blessing to others who are less fortunate.’
Hannah Peters’ huge heart took her to Benin, Madagascar and Cameroon caring for people with devastating conditions. She shares the remarkable transformation that occurs on the inside and outside of her patients, and Marthe in particular. Read Hannah’s story in That’s Life magazine here
Victoria never lost hope. Not after her parents died when she was a girl, not after she was forced to start begging in the streets, and not even when she began developing a massive facial tumour when she was only 18 years old.
Now, the resilient 23-year-old sat on the deck of the Africa Mercy, one hand holding a blue cloth to her bandaged face. Above the white bandages, her eyes sparkled when they caught the sunlight. It was difficult for her to speak after her tumour removal surgery, but warmth radiated from her smile. Her story was begging to spill out.
Her journey, like that of many of the patients who come to the ship, was marked by courage. It was not a short one … nor was it easy. Her travels took her from the far north, beyond Cameroon’s borders, on an arduous three-day journey to the port city where the Africa Mercy is docked.
Orphaned from an early age, the brave young woman made the trip alone. She was accustomed to facing obstacles. She had spent her adolescence fending for herself – living on the streets and sometimes forced to beg for money. Then the tumour appeared, slowly expanding over her face, affecting her in ways that stretched beyond the physical. It was difficult to eat or speak clearly. People avoided looking at her, and it became more challenging to find work to earn a living.
Victoria could have easily given in to the bitterness of a hardened heart. But, even in these difficult circumstances, her love for Jesus remained. It shone brilliantly in her eyes and was evident in her gentle spirit.
After hearing about Mercy Ships, Victoria bravely left the familiar behind for a chance at a brighter future — one without the weight of the tumour that had burdened her for five years.
“Victoria was all joy the night she came to the ship. The surgery took some of her energy and spark. Yet, through moments on the ward and dances down the hall, Victoria recovered
well both in heart and health,” said Kayla Bissonette, a volunteer ward nurse. “What was once work and exercises changed to laughs and friendships during her stay … the smile that reaches her eyes is how I’ll remember her!”
Victoria’s time on the ship gave her plenty of opportunities to exercise her engaging smile. While recovering from surgery, she celebrated her 24th birthday on the Africa Mercy, surrounded by fellow patients and caring crew members.
Before long, Victoria’s bandages were removed, and she saw herself tumour-free for the first time in years! “Thank you for making me beautiful,” she said to a nurse.
“You’ve always been beautiful,” the nurse replied.
Victoria’s first surgery left her free to eat, speak, and move with much more ease than before, but her journey to a full recovery was not yet complete. A routine second surgery awaited her to tighten the stretched skin on her chin.
But as she sat on the deck in the warm sunshine, Victoria’s journey to healing had already begun. By bravely telling her story, Victoria shared the hope she received, and her powerful transformation is evident in her beautiful smile and sparkling eyes.
Story by Rose Talbot
A hospital ship in West Africa is a world away from the family farm at Rua Roa under the Ruahine Rangers. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, taking Helen Trainor on the journey of a lifetime – eventually to volunteer her surgical skills aboard the Mercy Ship in Cameroon
Ms Trainor developed a deep love for animals as she grew up on the farm, and after high school, she trained as a veterinary nurse and developed a keen interest in anaesthesia while working in animal surgery. This, in turn, inspired her to retrain as an anaesthesia technician. ‘I moved from veterinary nursing to anaesthetising people because it was always such a fascinatingly part of the vet nursing job, but anaesthetics is quite limited with animals. So I moved to humans!’ Helen worked in the cardiothoracic and ear, nose and throat specialities in Auckland before heading to the U.K. to work in a large London hospital where she heard about the world’s largest civilian hospital ship operation, by the not-for-profit Mercy Ships, providing essential surgery for some of Africa’s poorest people.
Read Helen’s story in The Manuwatu Standard here
These days, Pirongia-born nurse Melanie Allen begins each shift with a two-minute walk to work – down several flights of stairs and into the hospital deck of the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy. In February Melanie joined the volunteer crew of the 16,000 tonne Mercy Ships vessel in Cameroon, West Africa. Her two-month tour-of-duty has already been both eye-opening and professionally challenging.
The 24-year-old is assigned to the ‘plastics’ ward caring, for both child and adult patients after they have received free reconstructive surgery for disabling burns.
‘The most common surgery I have seen so far among my paediatric patients is the release of burn contractures using skin grafts,’ explains Melanie. ‘These burns are often caused by spilling or falling into hot water or oil. The scar tissue that forms becomes tight and shortens, causing the limb to be stuck in a bent position, limiting their mobility and functionality. Other common problems I have seen so far are keloid scars where a prominent scar forms after injury from excessive tissue growth and lipomas which are benign tumours made up of fatty tissue.’
‘In general, the problems patients coming to Mercy Ships may face due to these conditions include a limited ability to work, or get an education, and some may even be ostracized from their communities.’
Cameroon can boast only 77 physicians for every million people, so even if patients could scrape together enough money to pay for treatment, timely care is simply not accessible. Similar statistics are echoed all over West Africa, which is why the not-for-profit has been operating hospital ships in the regions for decades.
‘For some people here, the Mercy Ship is their only hope for surgery,’ observes Melanie. ‘They to want regain their dignity, be acceptance back into community life and to have the ability to do things others take for granted.’
‘The Africa Mercy is unique because each year it sails to countries that most need help. It is like a little city with all sorts of people with various roles on board. People from all over the world come to volunteer their time and expertise. It is so well organised and I feel very supported.
‘Each morning the chaplaincy team come into the wards, and there is singing and dancing with African drums. During the evening patients pour out into the hallways where there is singing and dancing African-style. It can be very loud! It is an environment full of joy, love and thankfulness. Prayer is integrated into patient care. At the start of each shift we gather together and our team leader prays.
Serving with Mercy Ships has taken me back to the heart of nursing. There is less paperwork and more quality patient time. It has also challenged me to be more creative with the way I communicate with my patients across culture and language barriers. French is the main language spoken here in Cameroon but there are many other languages also. I try to learn key phrases that I can use, frequently use interpreters (our lovely local day crew), picture pain scales etc. I have also experienced how a smile or warm gesture can go a long way.
The Mercy Ship and her crew feature in the eight-part National Geographic series The Surgery Ship, on SKY Channel 072 beginning Saturday 7 April, at 6.30pm. For more information and behind the scenes stories, return to the homepage.
Around 40 New Zealanders volunteer with Mercy Ships every year for weeks, months and even years at a time working in medical, maritime and operational capacities. To see the incredible results of the work of these hidden Kiwis heroes, watch The Surgery Ship.
Thanks to the Te Awamutu Courier for publishing Melanie’s story