Hope and healing: Stories from onboard the Africa Mercy

By Joel Wittnebel/Active Senior’s Digest

The ship is fully stocked. Medical supplies, surgical tools, sterilizing equipment, operating rooms, and all the personnel and expertise in order to put those items to good use in some of the most desperate parts of the world.

In 2016, Mercy Ship surgeons performed thousands of surgeries for children and adults, treated even more dental patients and supported many patients in need of palliative care in some of the lowest income areas of the world.

However, on board the ship, alongside the doctors and nurses and volunteers who take months out of their lives to help those in need, is another passenger.

It’s not a tool, or a piece of knowledge. It’s not tucked away on a shelf or in a box waiting to be unsealed and used. It’s something that is created by hundreds of people all focused on the same goal. It’s something that leaves the ship as soon as it pulls into port, seeping out into the nearby city like a warm breeze. And it’s something that stays behind long after the ship has departed. It’s something much more powerful than even the knowledge and the expertise Mercy Ships leaves behind.

It’s hope.

What follows are only a few of the stories of lasting impact from a pair of volunteers who have dedicated countless hours to helping the less fortunate on the other side of the world.

Jane McIntosh during her time as head of the sterilization department.

Setting out

Mercy Ships has been providing medical services for many low-income African nations for nearly 30 years. Currently, Mercy Ships Canada operates a single vessel, the Africa Mercy, a 152-metre long former rail ferry, that was renovated for seven years inside shipyards in the United Kingdom to be outfitted as a hospital ship. Beginning her career a decade ago, the Africa Mercy is the world’s largest charity hospital ship, carrying dedicated volunteers across the ocean.

One of those volunteers is Nancy Eichenberg.

Eichenberg has worked as a nurse for over 50 years, spending most of her time inside the halls of St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, as well as the Health Sciences Complex in Newfoundland. Due to her husband’s job with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the pair and their four sons moved around quite a bit.

It was in 2011 that Eichenberg signed up for her first Mercy Ships mission. This particular stint was to Sierra Leone. It was an eyeopening experience, she says.

Eichenberg, who has spent the majority of her nursing career in the operating rooms of land-bound hospitals, was a natural fit for the OR onboard the ship. The Africa Mercy currently works with five operating theatres and an 82-bed ward.

Following her first stint in Sierra Leone, Eichenberg would go on to participate in a vast number of missions, including Guinea in 2012, Congo in 2013, and Madagascar in both 2015 and 2016.

“It’s very shocking, some of the things you see, but then, depending on how you look at it, I found that very challenging and very interesting and made you feel even more lucky to be able to help them,” she says.

Access to health care in these low income countries is limited, that is if families can even afford the treatments. Many ailments can leave children permanently disabled or be life-threatening.

And for the countries that the Africa Mercy visits, many of the people are in desperate need of that help.

According to numbers from Mercy Ships, nearly 70 per cent of those living in Sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $2 a day. Not only that, but the medical services offered free of charge by Mercy Ships, are also desperately needed as the majority of people either can not afford medical care, or it just isn’t readily available. Mercy Ships data suggests that nearly 85 per cent of children in low income countries need treatment for a surgical condition before the age of 15, many of which, if not properly treated, can lead to lifelong disability or death.

“It’s unbelievable how they live in such poverty and such terrible conditions and yet they seem to kind of suffer in silence and they survive,” Eichenberg says.

Onboard the ship

In 2016, Mercy Ships provided 1,682 surgeries for patients, both adult and children, 1,017 club foot procedures, treated 7,547 dental patients and supported 48 patients in need of palliative care.

Along with that, the ship provides eye care, mental health programming, infant feeding programs, women’s health initiatives, orthopaedic treatment and plastic reconstructive surgeries.

There’s a large team that goes into those procedures and programs, and when it comes to the surgeries, during her stint on the ship, Jane McIntosh, 62, was behind them all.

As the head of the sterilization department, and with stints in Sierra Leone, Togo and Guinea, McIntosh was responsible for prepping all instruments and ensuring they were clean and sterilized before falling into the hands of the surgeons. It was one of the most unique experiences she’s ever had.

“To be working in an environment where everyone is focused on the same goal is really quite unique in life,” she says. “I think the companionship, the camaraderie, the transformation of the patients that you would experience would really make it so beneficial to someone who is wanting to go.”
For Eichenberg, the living situation onboard the ship was an adjustment for her, as volunteers reside in cabins with up to six other people. However, with a common goal, it makes life easy, she says.

“You learn to live with everybody and it’s a wonderful atmosphere because everybody is there because they want to be and everybody is there to help,” she says.

Coming Home

Now, McIntosh, who lives in Surrey, British Columbia, works at the donor relations coordinator for Mercy Ships Canada. She says that upon her return to Canada, it felt like there was something missing.

Over the years, Mercy Ships has helped approximately 17 million people, and for the volunteers doing the helping, that can be a hard thing to let go.

“I did find it super hard when I came back,” she says. “I think I was almost addicted to giving and it was just so easy to give there, and so easy to see the change you could make in somebody’s life.”

The work of Mercy Ships Canada includes eye and oral care, mental health programming, women’s health initiatives and plastic reconstructive surgeries. Since its inception, the organization has helped over 17 million people.

For Eichenberg, the return home showed just how much her perspective had changed, especially when it comes to the way those in the developed world live their lives.

“The one thing you just realize all the waste here,” she says. “I think the biggest adjustment is coming home because it’s been such a big part of your life and then you come home and you see all these mountains of food being thrown out. It’s very hard to see that.”

A lasting impact

Hope. It’s the invisible passenger that stays behind when the Africa Mercy departs.

And according to a statement from Mercy Ships Canada director Tim Maloney on the organization’s website, it’s all part of the plan.

“I see our work as threefold at present. We need to raise awareness, recruit even more Canadian volunteers and fundraise on behalf of the organization. All of these elements are part of that sense of delivering hope and healing through the activities, programs and people of Mercy Ships,” he states.

That hope also comes in the physical form of programming, knowledge and lessons left behind by Mercy Ships.

Onboard the ship, individuals are able to learn the best practices when it comes to treatment.

“They also teach nurses and doctors so that when the ship leaves they’re not just left kind of destitute,” Eichenberg says.

The Africa Mercy currently operates with five operating theatres and an 82-bed ward.

For those receiving treatment, not only does the ship treat them, but Mercy Ships establishes a Hospital Out-Patient Extension (HOPE) Centre to provide housing for them and their caregivers near the ship.

During that time, Mercy Ships also partners with local agencies and individuals to help communities learn food producing skills and practical skills for improving crops and conservation-oriented farming methods.

And now, Mercy Ships is looking to expand their reach.

Plans are currently in place for the addition of a new ship, tentatively titled the Atlantic Mercy. The ship is planned for completion in 2017 with a full implementation in 2018, and while capable of servicing anywhere in the world, it will start by adding further services to Mercy Ships work in Africa.

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