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My rescue mission: Dr Michael McBrien on changing lives

Aboard a ship moored off one of the world's poorest countries, how Northern Ireland medic Michael McBrien transformed lives

By Stephanie Bell

It is without doubt the most unique hospital in the world, where a team of very special international medical staff, like local consultant Michael McBrien, pay for the privilege to work.

The consultant anaesthetist, who is based at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, has recently returned from his third stint on board the Africa Mercy, a state of the art charity hospital ship which is transforming the quality of life for some of the poorest people in the world.

The ship is staffed by up to 400 volunteers from 40 nations – from surgeons and nurses, to cooks and engineers – who give up their time and money to be on board.

It was during a recent 10 month outreach project in Congo-Brazzaville that the local consultant spent two weeks working on the ship, which is now docked in Benin, West Africa.

During this time, the volunteers performed more than 1,944 surgeries, 4,054 surgical procedures and 17,000 dental procedures on 1,740 patients.

Dr McBrien (49), who has worked at the Royal for 17 years, first served on board in 2011 in Sierra Leone, and then for two weeks in Togo with his wife Irene in 2012.

He says: "It is an unforgettably wonderful experience working with a different team of nurses, surgeons and anaesthetists in the ship's theatres each day; skilled volunteers from all over the world committed to serving each other, each patient, and doing the job with such love and excellence.

"It is a very purposeful family of people and being there and being able to help people in need is wonderful.

"It is also a privilege to be able to use your skills to help people who have nothing.

"I'm really drawn to the 'can-do' attitude of this organisation and, with excellence as their aim, they bring hope and healing to the poor in West Africa."

Mercy Ships is a Christian charity set up in 1978 under the vision of an American couple, Don and Deyon Stephens, who wanted to raise money to take a hospital ship to dock in large ports of developing countries to offer free medical care, irrespective of the patients' race, religion or gender.

The current ship, the Africa Mercy, is a converted Danish train ferry and has been in operation since 2007 with 80 in-patient beds and five operating theatres equipped to First World standards.

The 400 crew on board at any one time are all volunteers who pay fees for their keep on the ship, as well as for their travel and other related expenses. There is a school on board for around 50 children of crew members, all taught to the conclusion of their high school years by volunteer teachers who again pay Mercy Ships for their time with the vessel.

The ship is self-sufficient for electricity from its diesel generators, has air conditioning in the living areas, filters and purifies its own water supplied from land, manages its own waste, and takes supplies from containers sent by sea from Rotterdam and Texas.

Over 100 of the crew members have given up their jobs at home to commit to working for two years on board the ship.

All surgery is planned in advance, with several thousand patients attending huge screening clinics in open air stadia at the beginning of each field service after the Africa Mercy arrives in port.

It also has X-ray facilities, a CT scanner, a pharmacy and a laboratory. As well as four wards holding up to 80 patients, there is a small intensive care unit and a blood transfusion service with the crew members donating their blood for the patients.

The ship remains in each port for around 10 months before moving on for renovations in Tenerife or South Africa, and then on to its next destination.

Michael lives in Templepatrick with his wife Irene (50), a pharmacist, and they have two daughters, Jennifer (22) and Clare (21).

He first heard about Mercy Ships when he attended a medical conference in Harrogate in 2010 where the charity had taken a trade stand.

"I had never heard of it before and I got chatting to them and I liked the fact that they were bringing First World healthcare to Third World countries," he says.

"When I came home I looked up their website and prayed about it and then decided to apply."

The ship takes medical volunteers for a minimum of two weeks and usually up to a maximum of two years.

The application process is very extensive and, once accepted, volunteers pay their own way to the ship and £100 a week to be on board.

Michael enjoyed it so much during his first visit he persuaded his wife Irene to join him for the second trip, then applied for his third working holiday on board this year.

It is an experience which he says has humbled him, both as an individual and as a medical professional, witnessing at first hand the terrible traumas faced by people in the developing world and the sacrifice of the teams on board dedicated to helping them.

Now, having been on board the Africa Mercy three times, what has struck the local man most about the charity is "the range of surgical specialities working simultaneously on board; from orthopaedics to plastic surgery, maxillofacial surgery, general surgery and ophthalmic surgery" and the spirit of self-sacrifice from the volunteers: "The blood transfusion service depended on crew members donating their blood when a patient needed it.

"Many of the cases I was involved with were a result of infection, trauma or congenital defects in later life. We see few of these in the UK due to the better nourishment of our population, the availability of antibiotics, excellent trauma and surgical services and the correction of many congenital defects in early life.

"We take so many of these benefits for granted, as we do the availability of many drugs and medicines which enable us to lead healthy lives.

"From a medical point of view, it is not a challenge at all as you are dealing with patients the same way as you would deal with anybody who would come into hospital here.

"It really is top First World medicine and it is fantastic what is being offered."

People with physical deformities make up a huge part of the conditions the medical teams are dealing with on board. However, the superstitions which are prevalent in some of the places visited mean that, often, people with physical growths or cleft palates are shunned by their families and local communities.

Not only are they physically healed as a result of the treatment on the African Mercy, but they can enjoy acceptance for the first time in their lives.

"There are a lot of deformities and traumas among the patients. For many of them it is not so much about healthcare but acceptance," says Michael.

"The society they are living in is one of rejection if you don't look normal. People with deformities have to survive by wearing drapes over their faces because of ostracisation.

"There is a belief in evil spirits and anyone with a physical deformity, even a cleft palate, is shunned because it is believed they carry evil spirits. They are rejected by their families as well as by society and a rejected person thinks of themselves as worthless.

"It is the acceptance that Mercy Ship's nursing, medical and other staff offer to these 'outcasts' that brings the first wave of healing, followed by the medical interventions. They are so helpless and so grateful."

During his time on board, Michael experienced many moving individual stories. He tells of one woman he treated from Pointe Noire, who he describes as "a strikingly beautiful" 36-year-old called Anna, who had a tumour on her lower jaw which grew to the size of an orange.

Her life was transformed during four hours of surgery when the tumour was removed and her lower jaw on one side was replaced with a metal plate. She could never have hoped to have the growth, which contained cancerous cells, removed without the Africa Mercy.

As well as the huge impact on the lives of patients, for Michael, the dedication of the staff on board has also left a lasting impression.

"I go for two weeks, compared to some people on board the ship, including an anaesthetist from Bristol called Michelle White, who resigned her post two years ago so that she could spend at least three years on the ship. What an inspiration she is and what a sacrifice.

"Saying goodbye to everyone when I left was really tough – especially to the chief surgeon and medical officer, Dr Gary Parker, which was very hard for me.

"Gary has served onboard the Africa Mercy for more than 20 years and he lives on the ship with his wife and two children. His example of sacrifice, excellence and leadership was so special. I did not want to leave the environment which he and his team had created and in which I loved working."

Michael was also struck by the incredible trust which the local people placed in the strangers who would be treating them onboard the ship.

The fact that they have no other hope of being healed sees many travel vast distances to attend screening clinics when news that the ship is docking reaches them.

"We are speaking a different language they don't understand; we all look different from them and then we are rendering them unconscious before operating on them, which all shows the desperation of where they are.

"It's because of their desperation that they will go to these lengths to place their hope in foreigners and it's so much the reverse of how we live at home, where we have become so risk-averse.

"These people are so vulnerable in life that they just accept things, as they know nothing else. In our society, we have so many health and safety and rules that I think sometimes it kills the joy of living.

"It is humbling, the faith and hope the patients put in us, and it makes us want to ensure that, more than anything, we do it right for them.

"The standards on board the ship are as high as I would have experienced at home in my career. It's just a joy to be able to go and help."

During his stay on the Africa Mercy, the ship was visited by the President of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was welcomed onboard by the charity's founder, Don Stephens.

"The preparation for the visit was incredible," says Michael. "For days beforehand, the dock and port were transformed. It is a mile or so to the port entrance from the ship and many hands painted the walls and the pavement kerbs white, the roads were swept, empty shipping containers removed, propaganda posters erected and Congolese flags flown. Security honchos were everywhere."

Having served on the ship three times now, Michael hopes to continue to use two weeks of his annual leave each year to return to it.

"While I can, I will do what I can do. I always feel so sad to leave it and I have made friendships for life on board.

"I am a product of the health service. My seven years training and my experience working in the Royal have enabled me to do this.

"I have had so many memorable experiences that it is hard to highlight one; it is a privilege to work with such a visionary organisation."

Meanwhile, Judy Polkinhorn, executive director of Mercy Ships UK, sums up just what it means to the charity that people like Michael are prepared to give up their time to work on board.

"Volunteers are the lifeline of the charity and without them we simply would not exist," she says.

"We are extremely grateful to people around the UK, like Dr McBrien, who continue to support us."

An act of kindness to thousands

  • Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries, providing services valued at more than £630m, helping in excess of two million people
  • The international charity has treated more than 520,000 people in village medical and dental clinics, performed more than 56,000 surgeries and completed more than 1,000 development projects, focusing on water and sanitation, education, infrastructure development and agriculture
  • It has also trained more than 5,800 local health-care teachers, who have in turn trained many others
  • Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, health care trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills to the effort
  • For more information about the organisation and the work that it carries out, visit www.mercyships.org.uk

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