Mercy Africa: A Hospital Ship Bringing Healing and Hope to Africa

“The vessel christened ‘Mercy Africa’ serves as a hospital ship, maintaining prolonged berthing at various African ports. Medical practitioners within its confines conduct surgical interventions for local inhabitants devoid of adequate medical provisions, not solely rectifying their corporeal afflictions but also casting luminosity upon their existences.

Adama, bearing the burden of a congenital cleft lip and palate, traversed a tumultuous childhood. Abandoned by her parents to the care of her grandmother, Adama weathered myriad adversities to secure sustenance. Upon reaching maturity, she encountered ridicule and derision from school peers. Residing in the rural expanse of central Senegal, the prominent medical facilities in the capital city, Dakar, proved both inaccessible and financially prohibitive. However, Adama’s cleft lip and palate underwent remediation. Availing herself of complimentary surgery aboard the venerable Mercy Africa, she finally embraced a life of normalcy. Since its inception in the late 1970s, the non-governmental entity, Mercy Ships, has possessed the world’s largest civilian hospital vessel. Medical practitioners hailing from over 20 nations have executed procedures on almost 110,000 patients, Adama standing as one among them. The ‘Mercy Africa’ and its counterpart, the ‘Mercy Global,’ have long anchored in ports across Guinea, Senegal, Benin, South Africa, Nigeria, and other nations, rendering medical aid to local denizens.

| Delving into remote hamlets to extend a hospitable embrace to patients |

Mercy Ships personnel have traversed the globe, engaging in philanthropic endeavors, with their focus now honed onto the African continent—a region acutely in need of medical succor. Clody Laurent, the public relations head for Mercy Ships in France and an altruistic participant in Mercy Africa, attests, “We are garnering increasing recognition in Africa, having been invited by local authorities.” The Mercy Ship team initially gauges the volume of awaiting patients, disseminating news of the hospital ship’s impending arrival through local governance channels. Subsequently, they employ a set of criteria to select patients. Laurent laments, “Regrettably, we lack the capacity to perform surgeries for all. Notified patients must timely present themselves at the site, often residing far from the capital. For those unable to commute independently, we dispatch a chauffeur.”

‘Mercy Africa’ boasts state-of-the-art medical amenities, encompassing five operating chambers, four wards, 20 beds, an analytical laboratory, three pharmacies, as well as scanners, radiation detectors, and other apparatus. The onboard cadre, exceeding 200 in number, comprises surgeons, dentists, radiologists, and nurses from diverse disciplines, selflessly contributing their time and expertise. However, the hospital ship confines its services to restorative plastic, ophthalmic, maxillofacial plastic, gynecological, and various dental and oral surgeries, eschewing interventions on vital organs. A spectrum of maladies, including cataracts, burns, gynecological fistulas, hernias, and goiters, find remedy within this aquatic infirmary.

| Dignity stems solely from sound health |

“Typically, patients sojourn on the vessel for five days. Post-surgery, vigilant monitoring ensues, encompassing tasks such as bandage removal,” elucidates Laurent. “For plaster-clad patients, our ship-bound efforts represent merely the initial phase. Upon disembarking, they traverse the subsequent recovery phase at an onshore post-surgery center, ultimately returning home upon convalescence.”

Medical practitioners not only remedy physical ailments but also facilitate the restoration of patients’ dignity. Laughter permeates the cabins, a testament, perhaps, to the renewed self-assurance of patients. Laurent recounts, “On occasions, we conduct up to 200 gynecological fistula surgeries in a week. During childbirth, various tissues may tear, leading to urinary leakage and subsequent spousal rejection. The reparative surgery, a brief 20-minute procedure, culminates in the bestowment of a dress to each patient, emblematic of their newfound existence. Follow-up visits, conducted months post-surgery, ensure the sustained well-being of these individuals.” Through the auspices of Mercy Ships, these women reintegrate into society, regain employment, and rediscover their intrinsic worth.

Certain medical personnel harbor such affection for life aboard the ‘Mercy Africa’ that they deem this floating hospital as their secondary abode. Over the past 25 years, the American surgeon Gary Parker has devoted substantial time to maritime service, with four of his progeny drawing their first breaths on board. For Parker, career progression evidently pales in significance. “Years in developing nations have exposed me to individuals silently awaiting their salvation, seemingly entrapped by circumstance. Their inertia is not attributable to indolence or folly; rather, it stems from a dearth of hope. Boarding this vessel imparts a glimpse of the improbable, reigniting their optimism for the future,” asserts Parker.

Indeed, the warmly embraced floating hospital represents merely a facet of the ‘ship of benevolence.’ The organization’s impact extends far beyond maritime boundaries, involving the renovation of local medical institutions, the provision of cutting-edge equipment, and the orchestration of training initiatives to empower indigenous medical personnel in nurturing the next generation of healthcare providers.

Ori Abesi, a surgeon at the Public Teaching Hospital in Cotonou, Benin, participated in a facial deformity and severe burn repair surgery training program organized by Mercy Ships in 2009. Characterizing the endeavor as an on-the-job education, Abesi now reciprocates by training fellow doctors at her hospital while concurrently engaging in further training aboard the ‘Mercy Africa.’ The advanced medical equipment on the ship, akin to that in European hospitals, assumes secondary importance. Abesi underscores the transformative impact: “In our nation, access to medical resources is an arduous pursuit. Mercy Ships has cultivated a cadre of professionals, constituting a sustainable charitable effort that markedly enhances our medical landscape.” She envisions an ideal world where ‘mercy ships’ are superfluous.

Internationality takes to the seas

‘Mercy Africa’ stands as an international hamlet afloat on the ocean’s expanse. Hosting approximately 150 to 200 volunteers, with an additional 150 local staff diligently laboring daily, the ambiance aboard is serene yet impeccably organized. The amalgamation of individuals hailing from nearly 200 distinct professions—sailors, mechanics, technicians, educators, chefs, logistics personnel, information engineers—presents a logistical conundrum. Nonetheless, the non-governmental organization, drawing upon years of expertise, navigates this heterogeneity seamlessly. Within this international haven, diverse global denizens converse in the lingua franca of English. Residing arrangements for most volunteers encompass two-, four-, or six-person chambers, while those with familial ties relish the comfort of modest apartments. Educational concerns for volunteers’ children are duly addressed, with instructors ensuring scholastic continuity. Entertainment options, including movie screenings and concession stands, grace the vessel, meticulously arranged and administered.”