Volunteers encounter a young baby, Prunel, whose mother has been ostracised because of her child’s ‘curse’. Featured patients also include Bignon – another baby this time with both a cleft lip and palate who is dangerously malnourished, and Barthelimy – a man with a large facial tumour

Continue reading below, learn about the patients and volunteers featured in this episode, plus explore ways you can be part of the Mercy Ships story too. 



Baby Prunel is a four month old boy born with a split upper lip and a split palate. Hi mum Emilienne says: “I hid Prunel from everyone’s eyes, I was so ashamed for him”.

According to Voodoo, the dominant belief in West Africa, any malformation is considered a curse that affects both the person and the community.

“When people said I gave birth to an evil spirit or a devil, it was terrifying to me. I cried a lot and could hardly eat any more,” Prunel’s mum explains.

Despite the great efforts of his mum, baby Prunel was severely malnourished. That’s what dietitian Lee-Ann Borrow of Mercy Ships found when she examined him. She brough both mum and baby into the infant feeding program: so Prunel could gain the  strength to withstand his recponstructive operations.

Prunel was on track with his waeight gain and mum Emilienne was jubilant: “I want my boy to look like all other normal babies!”

But at the same time, Emilienne was very afraid because she wondered if she had done something wrong, something to cause the dusfigurement: she had never told Prunel’s father that she herself had had the same malformation at birth. It was a big secret they hadn’t shared.

Baby Prunel was the third consecutive baby in the family to be born with a split lip and palate. Normally, children born with this defect only pass it on to their children in 5% of cases.

Emilienne’s lip and palate had been repaired 20 years ago on another Mercy Ship! Dr Gary Parker would now perform the same procedure on the baby that he had done for the mother. It was  an accidental but very happy reunion;  a great joy for Dr Gary to find Emilienne and see how well she was now. He promised her that he would treat her baby just as well as he had treated her all those years ago.

Meet Barthelimy

Barthelimy is a cool, calm and collected motorbike mechanic who runs a small workshop in the dusty backstreets of Porto Novo, Benin. He carries the great responsibility of supporting a young family – he has four children, all under 8 years old. Together with his wife and mother-in-law, the family lives just a just a few hundred metres away from the workshop, in a small house located between a tailor shop and a mens hair salon.

Barthelimy has a very large tumour on his face which has been growing since 2006. In 2009 Mercy Ships visited Benin but he found out about their arrival too late and was unable to be admitted to the hospital. His father wanted him to follow the ship to neighbouring Togo, but it wasn’t possible for him to travel there. Now, 8 years later, Mercy Ships have returned to Benin and Barthelimy is scheduled for surgery.

Dr Gary Parker and Dr Kyley operate on Barthelimy’s tumour and it is one of the most complicated surgeries of this kind they have ever had to perform. The tumour is wrapped around one of the central nerves that gives movement to the face. If the surgeons aren’t meticulous with the removal of the tumour, there is a real risk that Barthelimy could lose the ability to use his mouth. After many hours of careful work in the operating theatre, the surgery is completed with no major damage to the nerve.

Barthelimy made the decision to not tell his children that he was going away to have his tumour removed, and it is a real surprise to them when he returns home a different man. Although the healing process has been painful and lengthy, Barthelimy is grateful to be rid of the tumour and enjoys telling everyone the story of this time on the ship.

He’s now returned to work and people from all over Porto Novo come to visit him at the workshop to see his transformation. On the phone, he tells a friend. ‘If you see me now, oh God, I’m very handsome!’



Captain John Borrow is driven by a love of the sea, helping others and family. His wife Lee-Ann is a dietician and nurse with the ‘Infant Feeding Program.

The Australians are seasoned volunteers, this isn’t the first Mercy Ship they have served on together.  In fact John has had a stint as chief officer on every Mercy Ship in the charity’s nearly 40-year history – except for one.

Captain John took over as master shortly after the Africa Mercy’s arrival into Benin, West Africa.

“There are a lot of special aspects to this organisation, but what drives me to be here, is the chance to use my God-given skills to serve,” he says.

He loves the opportunity to serve as a family and their two boys Tim (10) and Sam (8) attend the ship school ‘the Academy’.

Lee-Anne Borrow is a qualified dietician who works primarily in the Infant Feeding Program. This program is essential to supporting babies with cleft palettes feeding as many infants become critically malnourished as their cleft palette makes feeding difficult. Lack of nutrition in these babies can lead to death. Babies also must be in a healthy weight range in order to have safe surgery.


Gary Parker is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Africa Mercy. From the USA, ‘Dr Gary’ is the key surgeon who operates on the extraordinary and large facial tumours that occur. No-one embodies Mercy Ships like Dr Gary. His particular speciality is large Maxillo Facial Craniofacial tumours, cleft lip and cleft palate, and ear-nose-throat diseases are life-threatening conditions for children and adults throughout Africa.

An uncorrected cleft palate makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a baby to nurse or drink from a bottle. Even benign facial tumours can grow to such large and distorted sizes that the capacity for an adult to function as a normal member of the community is impossible. Left untreated, tumours can grow to the point of being life-threatening as a person struggles to breathe or eat, and render the victim a social outcast.

Gary has spent his professional life on board the ship- over 30 years of continual service. He and his wife Susan met and have brought up two children on board. His children have attended university in the USA, and Gary and Susan are now spending more time on land to support them.


When at home in Detroit, Michigan Lyndsay works as a neonatal ICU nurse. She says, ‘Since a young age I’ve had a desire to work in low-resource communities. My intent has always been to use my career to improve global healthcare in areas of critical need. To achieve this passion, I pursued nursing despite my then fear of blood and needles (Good thing I overcame this fear!)’

‘I heard about Mercy Ships 10 years back and it’s been a dream of mine to work with them ever since,’ Lyndsay explains.

‘I’ve always been impressed by their high quality, efficient care they deliver to their patients with such genuine love. On the ship, I had the opportunity to work as a Paediatric ICU nurse on D Ward, the ICU and Maxillofacial ward.  It was a truly life-changing experience to see patients come in, a tumour not only suffocating and starving them to death physically, but denying them social interaction and confidence because of the shame of their malformation.

It was such a joy and honor to see their physical and emotional transformation–a beautiful, tumour-free patient walking out of our ward with new found joy and confidence!


Ellen has  served three tours-of-duty as a ward nurse with Mercy Ships.  She says the transition from the intimate environment of Whangarei hospital’s Special Baby Unit to wards on the world’s largest civilian hospital ship is proved to be positively challenging.

The idea of volunteering her professional skills had been growing for years.  The tipping point for Ellen was hearing first-hand from a returning anaesthetist how compelling medical volunteering with Mercy Ships was.  So she packed her bags, embarking on a 15-week tour-of-duty in Benin, West Africa.

Previous travel experiences had prepared Ellen for the poverty she encountered travelling from the airport to the Mercy Ship, docked for 10 months in the nation’s capital Cotonou. “Luckily I have travelled through Africa quite a bit, so the initial arrival in Benin was not a culture shock,” she explains.

“I am working as a ward nurse on board, mainly with general paediatric, adult surgical patients, plus quite a number of plastic surgery cases. Mine is a 20-bed ward, and is quite busy.  I am amazed at how smoothly the whole operation runs on the strength of hundreds of volunteers with one common goal to bring hope and healing to the poor people of Africa. It’s absolutely incredible and almost unbelievable. Top surgeons, highly qualified nurses, lab technicians, radiographers, physios, dieticians – along with skilled engineers, hospitality staff, housekeeping staff and others – all pay their own way to volunteer their services which keeps this unique ship ticking.”

In the midst of many exceptional experiences, Ellen describes meeting the patient who was the recipient of her blood donation. “Upon arrival to the Mercy Ship, all crew have the option to sign up to donate blood. I am a regular donor at home, so I welcomed the opportunity of donating on board. I was delighted called to donate blood for a patient in theatre who was bleeding profusely. She’d already received two units, so mine was to go on standby in case she needed more. The next day staff from another ward told me they’d just checked my blood to give to a patient whose haemoglobin was very low.  I had the privilege of meeting the 15 year old girl and her mother while my blood was still being transfused into her! This was a very special heart-warming moment for me. Next day she felt strong enough to climb the stairs to enjoy the fresh air outside on the deck. You can imagine how pleased I was to see her doing so well!”

“Mercy Ships is unique because there are so many people of all ages and from all corners of the globe, speaking a multitude of different languages. We live and work together in a volunteer capacity, serving in a variety of ways. It is a wonderful testament to God that all these people – many before them and many more to come – are prepared to make some kind of sacrifice, and pay for the privilege, to work on the ship.”



Be part of the Mercy Ships story – by becoming a volunteer or donating today.