On board the business of hope

Is it really possible to provide something for nothing? Particularly when that ‘something’ is state of the art surgery delivered on board a floating hospital to some of the world’s poorest people? Thanks to the efforts of Kiwi volunteers, businesses and supporters it is possible, but every day presents a new challenge when it comes to staying above water.

Mercy Ships NZ is part of an international hospital ship charity that has been delivering free, world-class health care, capacity building and sustainable development to those in the developing world since 1978.

Currently working in Madagascar, the flagship Africa Mercy is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship.  Surgical specialities include obstetric fistula repair, orthopaedics, maxillofacial reconstruction (tumour removal, cleft lip and palate repair), burns contractures release, goitre and hernia removal.  Dental clinics and agricultural programmes are provided along with, medical education and mentoring programmes for local health care workers.Sharon Walls, who has worked with Mercy Ships for more than 25 years explains: “Mercy Ships goes to places in Africa where health care is almost unobtainable. When we dock, thousands upon thousands of people come to the ship, sometimes even carrying their loved ones for miles to get there and queuing for days to see if their condition, their children’s condition or their families can be helped by our surgeons.

“Everyone on board – from top surgeons to cooks and engineers are volunteers who fund their own passage. Overheads are kept to a minimum so the funds we raise can keep us on the water

 “In Africa there is an unprecedented lack of equality. Each year, 6.6 million African children die from preventable diseases before they reach their fifth birthday. Hope is offered to people who struggle to survive on impure water, inadequate food and have no access to healthcare. 

 “In 57 nations over 35 years, more than 2.48 million people have directly benefited from the Mercy Ships’ services, in-field clinics, and education programmes valued at more than $1.25 billion.

“Those ‘direct benefits’ are, in reality, the life-changing transformations that follow the surgeries that restore sight to the blind, unravel limbs so children can walk, remove tumours allowing people to breathe and eat and many other medical marvels that bring new hope and new life to people and communities. 

“Africa Mercy is a converted ferry and the entire bottom deck – where once trains rolled on and off – is now a medical complex.  Five state-of-the-art operating theatres, five multi-bed wards, and auxillary healthcare services like pathology, radiology and physiotherapy enable the vessel to provide lifesaving operations and life-transforming health care services that are simply not available to the populations of the developing nations that Mercy Ships visits.

“The upper level cabins house the volunteer professional crew of more than 400, representing around 40 nationalities. Surgeons, nurses, deck officers, administrators and bookkeepers – who take either holiday time or long service and pay their own way to work on the ship’s crew for weeks or months. The remainder are long term crew who volunteer for years at a time. Both the chief medical officer and the captain have lived on board one Mercy Ship or another for more than 20 years now with their families. Their children attended the vessel’s international accredited school, and gain a world view that is unlike
any other.

“We always need support to keep the Africa Mercy moving. We have fantastic support from individuals and groups but we inevitably need to do more. We have to raise additional funds to operate the second vessel coming online to work with the Africa Mercy, as well as maintaining the current service.

“Our hope is that more New Zealand businesses will join us in our mission to bring hope and healing to those for whom health care was – and is – seemingly out of reach”.

And Kiwis have played a big role. Walls says that from the beginning of the dream that became Mercy Ships, they have had Kiwis in critical and varied roles. Over the years the many hundreds of volunteers have included Captain, Ship’s Director, Operations Manager, Lead Ophthalmic Surgeon, Director of Organisational Development (international), Chief Financial Officer, Director of Training,
crew GP, Head Dentist, Director of Nursing, Second Officer… and many more over
the years.

 About 30 New Zealanders volunteer every year, many of whom fill short term medical roles like ward and theatre nurses, dentists, surgical specialists as well as operational roles like stewards, reception, communications and HR (two weeks to several months) The current long term crew includes the lead nurse for maxillia-facial surgery and the Purser.

Current onboard vacancies include Chief Steward and IT Manager.   


To see a patient’s story Marcel the Tailor: https://medium.com/@clarkemurphy

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