40 years of Mercy Ships

1978 to 2018 and onward

Anastasis-hospital-ship-frontDo you know that 40 years ago today the first Mercy Ship the ‘Anastasis’ was purchased. A beautiful ocean liner built in 1953. Don Stephens our founder had the dream of using hospital ships to serve the poor and forgotten. He dared to ask if he could buy the ship for scrap value. 1 million US dollars was the price. The owners said yes, generous donations were given and the rest they say is history.

Only it isn’t. It wasn’t that easy. There were trials, there were gruelling days turning this ship into a floating hospital, there was hardship. Those people who were called before I was even born. They prayed and worked so hard for four years, however they saw Gods purposes unfold. This wonderful ship became our flagship vessel for almost 30 years, treating thousands of patients, before being replaced by my current home, the Africa Mercy. So as work is underway on a new ship, we take this time to remember all that has happened since 1978, and begin 40 Days of Prayer and Fasting.

To quote our CEO Donovan “God, will you help us to look back so that we can go forward so that we may see your faithfulness? Will you continue to challenge us and teach us how to serve You in this new season of two ships? Will you Bless us and fill these two ships with your timeless purposes?”

 “Looking back is a relevant exercise. It helps us reflect on where we have been, and it gives us perspective as we look forward to follow Jesus. What could be more of a reason to take time to think about all God has done”

Over the next 40 days, there will be a daily devotional for all of us to read written by one of the leaders in the organisation. Don started today by sharing a story from the early days of the Anastasis. We can reflect on this and areas to pray for in our future. This is so significant for me. Look. See. Remember what God has done. What He has taken you through. Look where you are. Seek Him for where He is leading.

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Lenny’s legacy!

img_3282.jpgBack at the start of the year,  when I was working on the Radiology staffing plan for Guinea, I really wanted to have a few alumni come at the beginning of the field service. This is our busiest time of the year. We have to unpack everything, test it all and smooth out all the kinks of a new country, new colleagues and new patients. Having an alumni means these responsibilities are more evenly shared. As Hospital Support Services Manager – I have responsibilities as part of the Hospital Leadership Team, and having someone who knows the department, requiring only a quick reminder orientation – allows me to work more efficiently  in terms of balancing both my roles. Every Radiology Tech who comes to serve brings something different. They will bring clinical experience I don’t have. This was the case in Cameroon. But sometimes I do feel the weight of being in charge, not for a moment do I doubt God’s call to have me lead this team, not at all. Not that I doubt my clinical experience, and ability to go with the Spirits prompting when trying to decide which CT to do. Rather, sometimes its really good to be challenged professionally, to be asked why we do things a certain way, to discuss other ways of scanning, other ways to demonstrate pathology. This was Lenny’s 4th time onboard. We have never worked together before, but everyone I spoke to, talked about how great he is. After meeting him, I had no reason to doubt their high praises of him. He really brought such experience and together we made changes in the department.

Over the last 6 weeks we have set up a department, performed 81 CT’s, 65 x-rays and 50 odd OPG’s. The screening team have really kept us so busy, bringing in the most complex cases at the start of the field service. We have completed all the administrative tasks involved with running a department without admin support and no onsite Radiologists. We have had discussions about protocols, practices, and helping to compile a Radiology inventory to help with the planning for the new ship. He even got me to go for afternoon coffee when we could. Lenny has been so constant in his character, treating our patients with such kindness. He invited 3 different classes from the school onboard to come down and visit the Radiology Department, where he xrayed their teddies and apples, and showed them how xrays work. They loved it. He would always prioritise community and friendships and making people feel at ease. Plus he can really play the piano and was part of our worship team onboard.

Every Friday he would make me join with the Hospital tradition of wearing crazy scrubs. Here is our very international starboard side of the hospital on his last day: Radiology, Lab, Pharmacy and Biomed. However my top, which I thought was just French frogs, turned out to be American frogs in Uncle Sam hats…. It certainly amused one of the Texan officers to see a Scot displaying the stars and stripes. The department is richer for having him here. The community is richer for having him here. So sad to see him leave today.

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Hospital Day Crew meeting: Psalm 105

Every month there is a meeting for the Hospital day crew. It’s a time for worship, for announcements, for a little teaching, basically a chance for everyone to get together, when there shifts allow. These are folks from various departments: Wards, Rehab, Screening, Radiology, Outpatients and Hospital Laundry. Nate was due to talk at this meeting, but had asked if I could represent him instead, due to a clash in his schedule. The theme being ‘Living by the word’ Honestly, I was a little apprehensive. How do I have anything to say. Ultimately my responsibility as his friend and colleague is to support him in his role as Hospital Director, in any way I can. Im also reminded that we are told to be ready at all times, to give an account of our faith.

Dressed in my blue ‘fish frock’ I stood at the lectern in the international lounge, ready to speak and beginning with the privilege it was to stand and share. Reiterating the words spoken by Warrie at the first day crew meeting back in August. We speak about being called by God to serve onboard, but claiming that all our day crew have too been called. That they are vital in our mission here to serve the people of Guinea. So living by the word, what does that mean? how do we do it? what instructions are there? for the first time, I did the gesture that Ministers would do, holding up their bible to the congregation, Tommy would often do it back in Martins. So I held it high. This. These are our instructions. This is how we live by it. By knowing Gods word. It is constant. It speaks of his character and it is true and cannot be changed. By remembering the stories. By remembering them. Allowing the outcomes to tell us how to live.

Psalm 105 details the 500 year history of the Israelite nation. From Egypt to the promised land. It starts with a call to praise. To remember his great deeds. To rejoice in who he is. The next verses a cause for praise. The psalmist talks about provision and protection of his people. We hear about Abraham, God made a covenant with him. He promised Him his descendants would be more numerous than the grains of sand. We see that unfold through Isaac. We hear about Joseph, he was a slave, kept in chains. The word of God came through, he was released and lifted high into a place of authority. We hear about Jacob, he lived as a stranger in a different land yet God protected him. We hear about Moses and Aaron, they were chosen by God. He provided in the desert. Quail. Manna. Water. He provided. God caused the 10 plagues to fall on the land of Egypt. Yet the people of Israel overcame. The conclusion of this psalm is our response. Because of Gods sovereign, gracious dealings with us we should praise Him, obey Him and make Him known to others. God is sovereign. His purposes will come to pass. God is faithful, He keeps promises. Nothing can thwart his plans. If we learn His stories we will learn more about Him, then ultimately we will learn how to live by His word.

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38p and community

Tonight we went out to a local supermarket. Its the same place from almost 6 years ago. I was eating a pear in the Toyota on the way over, and I looked for a bin. The security guard called to me in French. While I didn’t know exactly what he was saying, his gesturing was sufficient. ‘throw it on the street’ It transpired after he was actually saying ‘You are in Guinea, there are no trash cans here, throw it on the street’  Well I got the gist of it. In the supermarket you can really find all the familiar classics, Golden Syrup, Heinz ketchup, Pataks tikka curry paste. Then there are the shelves with items I wouldn’t know what to do with. In a language I can’t read. The meat available does not look like any cut I would recognise from home. The cheap plastic items from China that no-one actually needs, fill the lower shelves. The countless items with white babies on the packaging.

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Outside the shop, the same women are still selling fruit and veg as they were back in 2012. The same stall I used to go to with produce in a variety of colours. 

‘Bonsoir, ca va?  Je voudrais trois citron vert et bouquet de persil sil vous plait. C’est combien?’ ‘cinq mille’ (5,000 GNF)

At that moment a group of guys with drums came over looking for some money. The women at the stall covered their ears and tried to usher them away. I paid the 5,000 and didn’t barter or question the amount, the drumming at this point was getting loud, very funny, but loud. Only on the way back to the car, did I do the mental arithmetic. 5,000 Guinea Francs is 50 cents or in British money – 38 pence. 38 pence for 3 limes and a bunch of parsley. Life here is not about money. Its not about how much we spend that brings contentment. Its about finding fresh parsley at 7pm at night, on a street corner in Conakry.

Sometimes onboard you have really long and tricky days and today was just one of them. Sometimes you just don’t want to eat in the dining room with 400 other people. Sometimes you just don’t want to eat spicy beans and smoked fish. Sometimes I just want to head to the crew galley and cook. So armed with my locally sourced parsley, jar of capers, a lemon and some spaghetti, I headed up to Deck 6.  The galley was empty. A rare moment to cook in silence. Just like I’m at home. Then Michele arrives. She too is making pasta for dinner. Sometimes you just have to stand at your own cooker, making your own pasta. Sometimes you just need your friend at the opposite cooker doing the same, as you talk about the day. Sometimes you just have to say yes to eating together at 20:30 in the cafe. Sometimes you just really need your community and your people around you.

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HSS: Pharmacy and perseverance

PharmacyPerhaps Pharmacy and Perseverance are not two words that you would immediately put together. However in this instance, I think the are perfect together. Sandy (far left) is our Senior Pharmacist onboard the ship. We have a Mercy Ships Formulary which is document which shows all the medications we stock onboard. Since arriving on the ship several years ago she has longed for an electronic version of this document to be on the hospital tablets that the Dr’s and Nurses use. Our Hospital is an International one, with many different countries and practices represented. The formulary is a quick reference to what they can use here. After a lot of work by both IS departments onboard and at the ISC in Texas. Really a lot of hard work and determination. They are finally active. The Hospital opened here in Guinea with these beauties. They even have several pharmaceutical references loaded, one of these is Lexicomp which gives information on each drug, warnings, drug interactions and recommended doses for both paediatrics and adults. Its an incredible resource for the Dr’s when they are at the patients bedside.

As they are on Mercy Ships tablets, this means that whenever the formulary is updated, the tablet can be electronically synced and the document will update overnight. Thus meaning we really are providing the most accurate, safe and up to date healthcare that we can. This really is a wonderful moment to see these come into use after months of perseverance by everyone involved.

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HSS: When dinner costs 1.5 million

img_2998On Monday the hospital opens, and this means that Hospital Support Services will start to carry their pagers 24/7 to provide either Radiology, Lab or Pharmacy. As we’ve only been setting up, we were not required to take them in the evening. So tonight we made the most of it and the whole HSS team went out for dinner.  This is not something we can do during the field service as often blood units are needed immediately. Controlled medications are needed. Sometimes even CT’s. As the only driver in our group, not sure how that happened…. I checked out a Toyota and we headed out to Avenue. In my history with mercy ships I remember going out for great quesadillas somewhere, in some country, but I couldn’t remember where exactly. Then I was reminded it was actually at this same restaurant. Its so surreal to be back here, and have memories from 5 years ago. Avenue is a really lovely place, about 10 minute drive from the port, when there is no traffic. They have Japanese sushi, Chinese noodles, Italian pasta and everything in between, which makes it a perfect place for our international group dinners. Most meals were around $9-14 dollars which makes is more affordable than Douala. It was so lovely to all be out together. We laughed when the bill came: 1.5 million GNF (around $160). Since the ship was last here, the government has introduced a 20,000 note. Back in 2013 the largest note was 10,000. We bundle the notes into either piles of 10 or 20, and just hope our counting is accurate. HSS dinner Guinea.jpg

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First Max Fax Screening

29th August. I have known for many months that today would be the first time I would meet our potential patients. That they would come to the dock to be seen by our Screening Nurses and Dr Gary Parker, our Chief Medical Officer/Maxillofacial Surgeon. It feels strange to write down his credentials, when phrases like ‘the humblest and kindest man there is’ seem much more fitting. Its easy to digress and talk about everything that this man stands for and the inspiration he is to all crew, but back to Max Fax and today.

Depending on the Surgical Programme patients fall under (Plastics, General, Max Fax, Ortho etc) will determine the colour coded screening forms that their information is collected on.  Today was the purple Max Fax ones, which meant we saw patients with Head and Neck pathologies. Bone tumours in the mandible and the maxilla, Parotid and Salivary gland tumours, Neurofibroma’s and large Lipomas.

Here we are – myself, Yo and Lenny. The Radiology Department onboardIMG_3021

As we were last here in Conakry in 2012/2013 it was likely that we would encounter patients who had a first surgery then, and would require a second one this time around. Towards the end of the day as I took a patient in from the hallway for a OPG (panoramic dental xray) I glanced down at his chart – he had surgery onboard in Jan 2013. I looked at him. I said I was onboard at that time. He said I know, I remember you. You took my first OPG. He had this prior to the surgical removal of the Bone tumour in his mandible. He had a metal plate inserted into his mandible and now he was back for the second surgery of a bone graft. It wasn’t just the lump in my throat that caused me to be lost for words, it was this mans patience and hope. He had waited 5 years for the ship to return to complete the final stage of his treatment.

Today there were 13 CT’s, 9 OPG’s and 1 CBT examination. By standards at home, this is not a particularly busy day, however as it was the first day things always take a little longer than you expect, we started scanning our first patients at 11:30 and yet somehow we finished by 16:45. This was indeed a miracle. I am so thankful to have Lenny onboard right now, this is his 4th trip to the ship and he understands how we work here. He brings such a vast clinical knowledge of CT and I couldn’t have imagined a better colleague to work alongside for the start of this field service. The 3rd (and vital) member of our team is Yo, our new Radiology Day Crew. She did an incredible job translating for all our patients. She does not come from a Medical background and she was explaining contrast CT examinations in French and Malinke and Susu ( local languages ). Many patients asked ‘will they be healed?’ She asked how best to respond – All we can say is ‘we hope so, that is why we are here, we hope we can help you, that’s why we are doing the CT – so the Surgeons can see if  they can operate’ 

Again I see with my own eyes that most of the conditions we see, are ones of poverty and limited access to specialised medical care.  While Radiographic appearances like these are ‘normal’ for me – wait is normal correct? Perhaps I mean I’ve become accustomed to seeing advanced pathology. I never want to lose that these are patients. People. Adults and children who have these terrible conditions. This is not a historical medical textbook image that I’m looking at. This is a patient I have just spoken to.  They are suffering. I never want to accept that this is ‘normal’ for anybody, or that I would lose the fight to advocate for a higher level of care for all patients – regardless of geographical location.

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