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SENEGAL WELCOMES MERCY SHIPS WITH OPEN ARMS

 

A handful of Kiwis were amongst the crew vigorously waving flags from the ship’s deck as the Africa Mercy arrived in Dakar, Senegal for the vessel’s first field service; the former flagship Anastasis served here in 1993. This nation 3/4 the size of New Zealand with 3 times our population. It is one of the most stable democracies in Africa with a long history of peacekeeping, but the population struggles at the lowest end of the UN Human Development Index which measures the quality of life.

 

Senegal borders The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Mauritania. Senegalese people are 96% Muslim, and speak French, Wolof and many other dialects (we need lots of translators!)

 

More than 40 New Zealanders will volunteers their skills and expertise in medical, maritime and operational roles in Senegal over the next 10 months, helping to provide essential surgery for the nation’s poor.

 

Mercy Ships is providing free surgeries in Senegal

Why Mercy Ships is in Senegal

The Senegalese people

  • Have 7 physicians per 100,000, compared to NZ’s 285 per 100,000
  • Live in multidimensional poverty at 164/189 in the  UN Human Development Index
  • Lose their children to infant mortality 10x more often than in NZ
  • Have a life expectancy of 60 (M) or 64 (F); 20 years less than Kiwis
  • Typically earn $2,700 per year

 

 

 

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SHIPS OF MERCY

The first surgery performed ona Mercy Ship was a cataract surgery in Mexico, in 1987

 

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND THANK YOU’s
Began with Señora Refugio Camacho, a Mexican grandmother blinded by dense cataracts.

 

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

 

 

The first Mercy Ships patient received surgery on board the Anastasis

 

Excerpt from ‘Ships of Mercy’ by Don Stephens

‘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.

 

 

I CAN SEE! I CAN SEE!

Anastasis, the first Mercy Ships vesselWith 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.

And that was also the scene the next morning as well, as everyone excitedly gathered around Señora Camacho to watch Dr Dyer carefully remove the eye patch.

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.’

 

After five years of volunteer toil converting the former cruise liner into a floating hospital, Senora Camacho was the first patient to receive what now numbers more than 100,000 free surgical procedures provided by Mercy Ships for people living in poverty.

 

Mercy Ships founders Don and Deyon Stephens
Mercy Ships founders Don and Deyon Stephens share with one of the hospital ship patients

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THE WIDOW’S TUMOUR STARTED WITH A TOOTHACHE

SAlematu had no access to the surgery that would save her life

It all started with a toothache when Salematu was 24. As a first-year nursing student, she knew she should go to the dentist, but she was struggling. She had just lost her husband unexpectedly, leaving her with two young daughters. Money was low, and medical costs were high. But the pain in her mouth grew worse. Eventually, waiting was no longer an option. After examination, the doctor’s news was not good — she was told it was a tumour that was growing slowly but steadily.

Over the next two years, she watched helplessly as it took over her face, pressing into her mouth and making it more difficult to speak or swallow. It twisted her nose. It began to creep closer to her left eye, threatening her vision.

All the while, Salematu was told the same thing by doctors: there was nothing they could do. They did not have the medical capacity to help her. Over time, she was forced to abandon her dream of finishing nursing school. What use was it to continue studying if her tumour kept her from working?

Tired of the looks and comments from strangers in the street, she stopped going out. She became relegated to her home, spending most of her time with her two young daughters. She was ashamed to be seen, embarrassed to let even her daughters witness her changing face.

Kiwi nurse Shali Clemant (left) helps care for Salematu post-surgery

‘I FELT HELPLESS.’

The first glimmer of hope came the day her uncle called her with news from the port city of Conakry — a hospital ship was arriving to perform free surgeries! Her heart was filled with happiness at the hope of release from the tumour. Salematu got on a bus and made the journey to the capital city alone, leaving her daughters behind with their grandmother.

It was hard to say goodbye not knowing how long it might be until she saw them again, especially without a way to keep in contact. But she knew that this surgery would not only save her life — it would save her daughters from growing up as orphans.

The day she walked up the gangway to receive her operation, Salematu said she felt joy down to her bones.

The next two weeks in the hospital were a blur. After her successful surgery, she bonded with the nurses who gave her round-the-clock care. “The nurses are my favourite,” Salematu said. “They are so kind to me. They have all become my friends.” After a few days, she was able to look into the mirror and see her new face for the first time after surgery.

“I feel beautiful. I feel good. I feel hopeful,” Salematu marvelled.

A HOPEFUL FUTURE FOR HER CHILDREN

During her stay on the Africa Mercy, Salematu couldn’t stop thinking about the moment she would be reunited with her daughters when they would finally see her without the tumour that had hindered her smile for two long years. Without a way to send them photos, she knew the transformation would be overwhelming.

After a few days, she was able to look into the mirror and see her new face for the first time after surgery.

“I feel beautiful. I feel good. I feel hopeful,” she marvelled.

During her stay on the Africa Mercy, Salematu couldn’t stop thinking about the moment she would be reunited with her daughters, when they would finally see her without the tumour that had hindered her smile for two long years. Without a way to send them photos, she knew the transformation would be overwhelming.

“They will see me soon, and they will not believe it,” Salematu smiled. “They will be so happy!”

The day she was told she could return home, Salematu said she felt like dancing! She was so excited to finally hold her daughters close, and to return to pursuing her dreams of finishing nursing school, with the hope of one-day pouring love and care into others.

These plans for a life that once felt powerless now felt full of limitless possibility. Salematu’s miracle changed her life, and she couldn’t wait to share her joy with the world.

 

Our Work

VIDEO: Behind-the-scenes geeks, technical crew and other unsung heroes enable the state-of-the-art hospital ship to operate in often challenging technical environments in developing nations ports. They play a hidden yet vital role in the provision of free essential surgery for some of Africa’s poorest people.

The toughest tech you’ll ever love from Mercy Ships New Zealand on Vimeo.

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HIS CLEFT PALATE WAS CAUSING THE BABY BOY TO SLOWLY STARVE

 

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

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND THANK YOU’s
to God for the restored lives and new future for Paul Pascal and the multiplied thousands who have passed through the hearts and care of the crew on this vessel of mercy in the past 40 years

 

 

Mercy Ships dietitians help Mums of cleft palate babies learn to sucsesfully feed them

 

 

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.

 

NUTRITION THEN FREE CLEFT LIP AND PALATE SURGERY SAVED HIS LIFE

cLEFT LIP OR PALATE SURGERY WAS OUT OF REACH OF THE FAMILY

 

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.

 

5/7 people in the world have no access to essential surgery
Paul Pascal with his mother ready to head home after his free surgeries.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Our Work

               FELICIA HAD SUFFERED A LIFETIME OF REJECTIONDisease stole Felicia's nose when she was a young woman

 

She arrived at the Mercy Ship Anastasis with a definite air of expectation. For over 50 years Felisia had lived without a nose.

 

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND THANK YOU’s
Since 1978 Mercy Ships volunteers have joyfully provided 100,000 free surgeries; changing the future people like Felicia living in poverty in developing nations

 

Felicia never dreamed she would get the surgery she needed

 

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!

 

 

VOLUNTEER CREW PROVIDE FREE ESSENTIAL SURGERY the future looks so much brighter for Felicia

 

Through a series of operations onboard the Mercy Ship 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 pointed her nose in the direction of home.

 

 

Our Work

SEKOUBA HAD NO HOPE OF GETTING THE SURGERY HE REQUIRED

The benign tumour was growing and becoming life-threatening

It was just an ordinary morning when Sekouba first noticed a little button-sized growth in his mouth. He showed his mother who told him not to worry about it, that it would probably go away.

He tried to forget about the rapidly growing lump it but that didn’t make it go away. In just 12 months it was as big as a tennis ball, filling Sekouba’s cheek, significantly impacting young Sekouba’s life.

People taunted him and the tumour drew endless stares. ‘What’s that in your mouth?’ they asked, and curiosity soon turned into scornful laughter.

As Sebouba was mercilessly teased, school became unbearable so he stayed at home..  His friends refused to play and even his brothers were ashamed to be seen with him. Every day Sekouba was painfully aware that he was the only boy his age in the village NOT going to school—and everyday school was the only place he wanted to be.

Thousands of people came to Mercy Ships hoping for help

Hoping to find medical care, Sekouba’s distraught family took him to the largest hospital in their region, but no one who could help. But their cries for a cure were miraculously answered when they heard that the hospital ship was coming to Guinea, West Africa.

On the day he came to Mercy Ships, 12-year-old Sekouba held a faded photograph with frayed edges. It showed was a younger, smiling boy with an unblemished face.

‘This used to be me,’ Sekouba sadly explained.

When the Mercy Ships medical screening team accessed him for surgery,  the future changed; Sekouba was handed an appointment card for a free operation onboard the Africa Mercy to remove the benign tumour that had turned his life upside down.

 

 ‘EVERY TIME I PRAY I THANK GOD FOR THIS SHIP’

 

When Sekouba’s mum saw his restored face she was overwhelmed with joy.

‘Every time I pray, I thank God for this ship,’ she declared. ‘I don’t know what we would have done without it.’

This is just one example of how you can help change the life of a little boy who was facing a very bleak future.

Sekouba was only onboard the ship for month for his surgery and recovery — but in that time, you helped change his life forever. With his tumour gone and his face healed, Sekouba’s future is looking very bright indeed.

 

MT EDEN NURSE PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN FINDING PATIENTS NEEDING SURGERY

Mt Eden nurse Vivien helped Sekpuba access essential surgery

 

The Mercy Ships Screening Team goes mobile to find isolated people. Vivien (left) from Auckland explains there is lots of travelling on bumpy roads and long hours, to reach out-of-the-way, desperate people in West Africa’s interior towns and villages. People lack money and transport for even basic healthcare, which often ends up becoming a much bigger problem if left untreated. Something that would be an inconvenience for us in New Zealand can become life-threatening here.’

Despite the overwhelming need, Vivien has great hope. ‘The longer I am with Mercy Ships, the more I realise what is going on behind the scenes – the people involved in making things work,’ she explained.

Vivien has volunteered three times with Mercy Ships, most recently for a 10-month tour-of-duty during which time she met Sekouba.

Right now there are many more people waiting for essential surgery in our next port.

Can we count on you to help us provide life-changing surgery for more children like Sekouba? Could you find $35, or $75 or perhaps $100 to help provide a life changing operation?

Our Work

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

 

Our Work

IT TAKES MORE THAN DOCTORS AND NURSES TO FLOAT A MERCY SHIP

Maritime compliance is an important part of mercy Ships commitment to excellence and professionalism.

As part of their preparation for life at sea for the next couple of years, New Zealanders Karin and Islay are learning the ropes at the International Support Centre in Texas, where fellow Kiwi Andrew is the Senior Chaplain.

Basic safety training, fire fighting and first aid are just some of the practical classes they are attending with other new recruits from across the globe. The cohort are becoming familiar with our organisation’s values and learning more about God’s heart for the vulnerable.

Karin will be teaching the in the onboard school for crew children, and Islay working will be with the volunteer crew application processes in the HR office. Both their roles are behind the scenes and a hugely essential part of the Mercy Ships ship-board community.

 

 

Before they head to the Africa Mercy as crew for the very first time, Andrew was delighted to speak Kiwi, share lollycake and tell the new volunteers about some of his adventures in Mercy Ships over the past 20+years.

Islay and Karin will be joined by more than 40 other New Zealanders who are volunteering in medical, maritime and operational roles on board the Mercy Ship during the 10-month field assignment in Senegal, West Africa.

There’s a fabulous adventure ahead folks, enjoy the ride!

School teachers and HR personnel are important roles with Mercy Ships

Teachers and human resources personnel volunteer in essential roles with Mercy Ships

Our Work

GRACE NEEDED LIFE-SAVING SURGERY

Grace's life was saved by free surgery on the Mercy Ship

 

 

Grace was one of the first patients up the Africa Mercy gangway in the Republic of the Congo in 2014. It was a race against time to remove the life-threatening, football-sized tumour from the 17-year-old’s face.

 

 

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND THANK YOU’s, reflects upon the precious patients who received the 100,000 free surgical procedures provided by Mercy Ships since 1978.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Removing the tumour that was choking her required a skilled surgical team - and they were all volunteersf skilled

 

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 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.

THE 2.2 kg TUMOUR THREATENED EVERY ASPECT OF GRACE’S LIFE

Grace after her free life-saving surgery on board the Mercy Ship

 

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 newfound hope and confidence.