The hospital ship arrives in port Cotonou, Benin. The volunteer medics on board commence screening, surgeries are planned and the first patients begin treatment. Nate and the team face mounting unrest in the crowd of thousands outside the screening centre and life or death decisions for the hopefuls inside. Featured patients include Julien – a young man with an enormous facial tumour that puts him in iminent danger of suffocation, Michel – a young boy who is initially turned away but in a dramatic turnaround is brought back to the ship for surgery, and Baby Patricia – a child with a cleft lip.

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. 


Meet Julien

Julien has a large tumour protruding from his lower jaw, which he covers with an old, pink rag. He lives in a remote village north of Cotonou with his Mother and younger Brother, Marcellin. Julian used to work repairing tyres and according to his brother was a very social person. He now spends his days in the company of his family and is reluctant to leave the home out of fear of his neighbor’s reactions. Some people in his village believe he should have died from his tumour. Julian relies heavily on his mother who has to support the family after the death of Julien’s father four years ago. Julien believes his father died of a broken heart when the family couldn’t afford surgery to remove his tumour.

After seeing information on the internet about Mercy Ships, Marcellin brought his brother to the screening in Cotonou. Julien waited for days, sleeping at the screening site in hopes of being seen.

One morning, Screening Security Matt Tveite noticed Julien milling around in the crowd outside the gate and told him to get in line. When Matt returned to let more potential patients in, the line, seeing his need, decided to move him up to the front. Matt was astounded, saying he’d never, in all his experience with Mercy Ships, seen a crowd respond that way.

After several rounds of screening, Julien received a date for surgery. His response was full of faith, “God will perform a miracle. Without God, there’s nothing else. Don’t be discouraged – don’t think things are beyond hope. Anything that happens to a human being – believe in your heart that there will be hope one day. If I didn’t have faith, I would have died.”

After his surgery on the Africa Mercy, Julien spent several weeks recovering. When the time came to return home, Julien was ready. He finally felt he could walk freely outside, instead of hiding from everyone.

When Julien, Marcellin, and thier sister, Alice, arrived at their home, their mom ran out to greet them. She rejoiced and said, “welcome, welcome, welcome” as she hugged Julien. Julien’s uncle and another friend arrived, and the emotional homecoming continued. They all gathered and Alice prayed.

As Julien walked around his village, his neighbors were amazed at his transformation. They came together to have a celebration for Julien, singing, dancing and sharing snacks.

As for the rag Julien used to hide his tumour? He says he’s thrown it out “like a piece of used toilet paper.” He’s been transformed.


Baby Michel was first screened by nurse Nate Claus in the outside screening line on the basketball court in Don Bosco. Michel was visibly and audibly struggling to breathe because of a large tumour in his tiny mouth. Michel was was very unwell and was accessed to be sent straight to palliative care because the tumuor has grown so quickly in such a short period.

It is later learned that Michel might be able to be helped and he is signed up for a surgeon screening with Dr Mark Shrime.

This was a really tough day for the whole screening team. The line outside was enormous and very rowdy. Nate had told NatGeo in an interview earlier that day that he was considering shutting down the screening for that day because it was too chaotic. Everyone was exhausted and nerves were frayed.

When Nate first saw (and heard) Michel struggling to breath, you can see the despair on Nate’s face. When the mother tells him that the tumour started growing from birth, Nate assumed it must be malignant and aggressive. He makes the difficult decision to say ‘no’ and not send Michel through screening. Instead he radios for chaplaincy and palliative care. This child is not going to live for long, is what he’s thinking. (NatGeo later learns from Nate that this boy reminds him of another patient from a few years earlier with a very similar presentation. They operated but the tumour was in fact malignant and the boy died.) It’s a really tragic and moving moment on a very difficult day for Nate and the team.

After a palliative care home visit, Yfke Dumbaya and Christina Van der Zande decided to bring them in for surgical screening and the medical staff decided to pull together the best team to do the surgery.



Gary Parker is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Africa Mercy. He 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.


Twenty-six year old Kayla Innis quit her job as a paediatric and emergency nurse in Michigan, USA to pursue a dream. She boarded the ship in Madagascar to volunteer as a ward nurse for four months.

But four months wasn’t enough time for her to spread her wings, so she applied for and was offered and accepted a position on the screening team.

Kayla describes herself as a “twenty-something currently processing a quarter-life crisis.”

She’s proficient in Spanish but always trying to improve. She would rather explore the eccentric corners of the globe than do almost anything else.


Mark is an Ear, nose and throat surgeon – and a leader in the field of global surgery for poverty alleviation. At the time of filming, Mark is Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School, Associate Staff at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary & Staff Surgeon Mercy Ships.

He is a specialist ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon and a leading academic in the field of Global Health – which essentially means working out the best way to improve the medical and in his case particularly the surgical capacity and systems of developing nations. He’s served as Associate Professor and director of research in Global Health at Harvard Medical School.

Mark is very ambitious and passionate about the work Mercy Ships does. The latest research from WHO, Lancet Commission shows that improving access to affordable, safe and timely surgery is the best way to tackle the challenges of Global Health. That means Mercy Ships is where you want to be to make a difference on a practical level. On a policy level Mark is also very passionate about his work as a research academic. This is the time to be in Global Health. He’s on the verge of very big things, whichever way he chooses to go.

For his first several visits to the ship he worked as Dr Gary’s resident, and assisted in every surgery Dr Gary performed. This was the greatest learning experience he could have hoped for.

MEET Nate Claus

This year is Nate’s first time as Screening Supervisor for the entire screening operation, which means he is the key point of contact.

Last year in Madagascar he was coordinator for the field screenings but this is a significant step up in responsibility. He has risen quickly from assistant screening coordinator during his first full field service in Guinea, West Africa in 2012.

The screening model this year in Benin is also new; three weeks of screenings instead of a single en-masse screening day. Nate is passionate and dedicated, he takes his role very seriously. We see him wrestle with big decisions and their consequences.

This year the ship is also trialing a new way of screening remote patients via a smart phone application which allows the screening team to give feedback quickly to screeners in the field and better co-ordinate who should come to a remote screening – reducing the number of people presenting with conditions that the ship cannot help.



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