Volunteering on the hospital ship MV Africa Mercy gives nurses the opportunity to, for a while, live out their caring role to the fullest. “I’ve found that caring for patients here is truly patient and people focused,” says Rebecca Roma in her blog about her time on Africa Mercy while it was docked in Douala, Cameroon. “I am not running around trying to complete endless nursing tasks, clicking away at lengthy assessments on the computer, barely keeping my head above water. There is actually time to spend with my patients.”
Africa Mercy is the largest, non-governmental hospital ship in the world, bringing free health services to people in desperate need. Most of the patients would have lived out the rest of their lives with severe disability or disfigurement if it were not for the surgery on the hospital ship. “In Africa, these people have been cast out of society for their physical appearance. Their ailments are seen as “evil” or “bad luck” and many of these people spend their lives in hiding,” explains Roma. “Mercy Ships is their saving grace and a chance to get their lives back. Taking care of patients here is full of love and healing – emotional, mental, physical and spiritual.”
What are Mercy Ships?
Mercy Ships, a global humanitarian organization, was founded in 1978. It is guided by the model of Jesus and the values of loving God, loving and serving others, as well as maintaining integrity and excellence in all they say and do.
Africa Mercy undertook its maiden voyage in 2007 and is currently the only mercy ship, but the organization is working towards adding another custom-built ship to its fleet. Every year the ship docks to bring much-needed health services to a different developing country for around 10 months. In countries where the ship docks around half of the population live within 100 miles of the harbor – and so the modern hospital ship, with its state-of-the-art facilities, clean water, reliable electricity as well as its crew of 400 skilled volunteers can sail right up to the people who need its services.
The focus of the hospital is in specialized surgery. Altogether there are 80 patient beds and it is equipped with five operating theatres, high-tech x-ray and laboratory facilities, a recovery room, intensive care units and low dependency wards. HOPE (Hospital Out-Patient Extension) centers are established on land to provide patients and their caregivers with a clean and safe environment in which to recover until their last follow-up appointment on board.
Mercy Ships has helped to change the lives of close to 2.5 million people living in 56 developing nations with poor access to specialized medical services. Every year more than 1600 volunteers from over 40 nations donate their time and skills. “Together, we seek to bring hope and healing to the world’s poor one life, one community and one nation at a time.”
Africa Mercy’s Services
Specialist surgery on the ship includes maxillofacial, orthopedic, plastic, general, ophthalmological and women’s health surgery – with the main focus on correcting disability and disfigurement from birth defects, accidents and injuries, tumors, and other health conditions.
“Seeing how such patients react to their new appearance in a mirror has been an incredible experience,” said Roma of her time nursing patients who had undergone maxillofacial surgery. “The first time you unwrap that dressing and they’re able to see their face without that tumor they’ve been living with their whole lives, their faces just light up.”
The women’s health surgery is a recent addition to the services of the ship, mainly to repair vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistulas resulting from difficult and prolonged labor – problems rarely seen in the developed world where cesarean sections are readily available. Because of the chronic effects of the fistulas these women are often abandoned by their partners and ostracized by the community.
The ceremony held for each of these women when they are ready to return to society perfectly demonstrates the holistic, loving care which is the hallmark of Africa Mercy. Each woman gets a new dress and headpiece as a symbol to celebrate her beauty. “They enter into the ceremony looking absolutely radiant, makeup and hair done, faces beaming,” explained Roma. “Here they are able to give their testimonies, dance, and celebrate with the crew. It is an incredible moment to share in.”
While in port Africa Mercy also sets up a dental clinic on land, providing basic dental services as well as dentures. The dental team also works with the community to teach oral health care to school children.
Furthermore, Mercy Ships uses the time in each country to leave it better equipped to improve the health of the community – thereby creating a lasting legacy. The capacity of local health service personnel is extended through courses and mentoring provided by the specialists on board. Working closely with the local governments, healthcare resource needs are identified which then direct projects such as constructing or renovating buildings or other infrastructure. An agricultural service enhances local farmers’ food production skills and this contributes to reducing malnutrition and increasing food security.
Working on Africa Mercy is so fulfilling that many volunteers, like nurse Deb Louden, start saving for their next mission as soon as they return home. “What they give back to us is more than we actually could ever give. You always come away more blessed.” said Louden.
Volunteers apply for positions on the ship for periods ranging from eight weeks to two years, depending on the job. Most of the nursing positions are for a period of eight weeks. Volunteers need to raise their own funds to cover monthly crew fees (board and lodging), insurance, traveling expenses to and from the ship, as well as personal expenses. While amenities are very basic, the ship is like a mini-city with a launderette, a library, a shop for basic needs, and even a school for the children of staff on longer missions. The period on board is also not all work and no play, with staff being able to enjoy excursions on their off days into the heart of the African country where the ship is docked.