Belfast Telegraph

What prompted these Northern Ireland medics to sign up for African mercy ship?

The inspiring story of how a group of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses helped hundreds will be told in a BBC NI documentary

By Ivan Little

From a distance, the impressive blue and white liner, with its sleek design and sparkling cleanliness, looks just like any other luxury cruise ship which criss-crosses the world's oceans - but even the most cursory of glances at the "clientele" of the Africa Mercy tells a different story.

For this is a ship where hope and not hype rules the waves; where the "crew" work for nothing, with good and not gain as their motivation, and where there's not a fat-cat American, or European, in sight.

For the Africa Mercy does exactly what it says fore and aft - it brings mercy to Africa and other deprived areas of the world, dispensing free medical treatment to people who are in desperate need of help, but who stand little chance of getting it in their own countries, where facilities are basic and where it's estimated there's only one nurse for every 4,000 people.

And now a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary, True North: The Mercy Ship, has captured the story of sacrifice and selflessness of eight medical professionals from here - surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses - who travelled to the island of Madagascar to volunteer on the floating hospital that is the Africa Mercy.

The scale of the operation is extraordinary - as are the range of surgeries that are performed during this remarkable Mercy mission.

More than 400 volunteers from more than 40 nations actually pay to bring their extensive repertoire of skills to the Africa Mercy, which is run by the Mercy Ships organisation, which set sail on its extraordinary journey in 1978 when Americans Don and Deyon Stephens came up with their altruistic idea.

Nowadays, advance teams from the Africa Mercy go out into rural districts of the countries, where it is docked for up to 10 months at a time, in an attempt to find their prospective patients, who are assessed in huge screening clinics.

If they can be treated, they're invited on-board the hospital ship, which is fully equipped with First World medical technology, including top-of-the-range X-ray facilities, MRI and CT scanners, as well as a pharmacy and a laboratory.

Four wards hold up to 80 patients and there's also a small intensive care unit and blood transfusion staff, who rely on donations from the ship's own medical teams for their stocks.

The Waddell Media documentary, directed by filmmaker Morag Tinto, doesn't bang the drum for Christianity, but there are enough tell-tale signs that a deep-rooted faith is at the helm of the Africa Mercy and that Christianity has been a major recruiting agent around the globe. Cameras filmed some of the surgical procedures in the ship's five state-of-the-art operating rooms, which are in use around the clock, but they also recorded surgeons and nurses praying with their patients.

One unnamed medic said: "Sometimes the surgery is unsuccessful. So we usually ask our patients to really pray a lot that God will bring healing." In the documentary, the patients include a young child with a cleft palate and a woman with a goitre the size of a small football on her neck, which doctors said could suffocate her if it wasn't removed. Sadly, deformities like those weren’t unusual in Africa, but the Mercy Ship teams also encountered distressingly common problems among pregnant women, who suffered almost unimaginable physical difficulties in labour and who were immediately shunned by their menfolk.

Rachel Lappin is a nurse from Dollingstown, Co Down, and at the start of the documentary she said she coped with all sorts of medical dilemmas, but she went on to calmly tell of her work with the exiled women, many of whom had lost their babies, and  some of the mothers hadn’t survived their ordeals.

In a testimony to Moira Pentecostal Church, Rachel said she thought she would change the world by enlisting with the Africa Mercy, but she discovered that the people she met — including young mothers as young as 12 — changed hers, and she described working with them as “an honour”.

“They broke my heart, but they inspired me to stop moaning and get on with it,” said Rachel.

She explained that she had to teach some of her patients how to use a toilet and how to open a door because they had never seen one before.

Rachel, who has previously volunteered in Colombia, Nigeria, India, the Philippines and Ukraine, said her work on the ship made her feel alive, adding: “I feel that I’m doing what I was born to do. And I love it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have hard times and days when I think ‘what am I doing?’ But life is for living, isn’t it?”

Rachel and her friend Louise Little, from Scarva, shared a tiny windowless cabin on the Africa Mercy.

And Louise, who has worked in South America, Burkina Faso, Poland and Hong Kong, explained that making the adjustment to her new surroundings on a ship thousands of miles from home was difficult at the outset.

The documentary-makers also spoke to the parents of women’s health nurse, Lynette Givan, from Dungannon, who were worried about their daughter, though their pride at what she was doing for less fortunate people shone through their tears.

Lynette said her Christian faith sustained her, adding: “Sometimes our problems in this lifetime won’t go away. They won’t be healed physically. But when you come into a relationship like I have with Jesus, that’s where you find your hope. Without Him I think I would become very distressed.”

Most of the volunteers on Africa Mercy devote a fortnight of their annual leave from their jobs back home to the hospital, but others, like team leader Jane White, who is from Annalong, spend years on the ship.

She said one of the hardest things about the work was saying ‘No’ to people at screenings, adding: “They may have walked for days and spent all their money coming to you for help, but you know that you can’t help them because it’s not a surgical problem that they have, or because it’s too complicated for even Mercy Ships to do.”

Also featured in the documentary were a young Christian couple from Ballymena who volunteered together, though they weren’t able to travel to Madagascar at the same time as each other because of an unexpected job interview at home.

Dr Ryan Moffatt and his physiotherapist wife, Jennifer, wrote a blog about their experiences on the surgical and rehab teams on the Africa Mercy.

Ryan told the programme makers: “We see it as missionary work but doing it with medicine and not just outreach.” In their blog before they left Madagascar during the summer, the Moffatts wrote that they had been privileged to spend 10 months there and to see “God’s love shown through the people we have worked with, the patients we have treated and the communities we have been so lucky to serve”.

Royal Victoria Hospital consultant anaesthetist, Michael McBrien, from Templepatrick, has volunteered five times on the ship. He said: “It is a privilege to be able to use your skills to help people who have nothing.

“Each patient, I have had the opportunity to care for was memorable, from the youngest child of three months to the oldest adult, aged around 60.

“My motto from my experience is, ‘I have gained more than I have given’.”

None of the medical professionals in the programme underestimated the fear that their patients experienced in the ultra-modern surroundings of the Africa Mercy, which was a world away from what they knew in their day-to-day lives.

A number of the medics said it was humbling to see the faith and trust that people placed in “strangers” like them as they were anaesthetising their children and taking them away for surgery.

Jane White said: “You do have to place a bit of trust in people and I commend them (the patients) for that because it’s a big step.”

Operating room nurse, Dee McCabe, from Belfast, said she loved working on the ship, but admitted: “Prior to all of this I wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable in the company of born-again Christians.

“I always felt a wee bit overpowered and overwhelmed and it can occasionally feel like that on ship, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Towards the end of the documentary, the African woman who had the unsightly goitre removed from her neck stared at herself in a mirror and smiled in near disbelief at her new look, clearly thankful for what was anything but a small Mercy.

Jane White, who’s on the Africa Mercy for the long haul, said it was hard to see friends and colleagues leaving to go back home.

“It does hurt. It hurts the heart,” she said, but she added: “I don’t have anything holding me at home, so I am free to go and do what I want to do. And this is what I chose.”

But Jane clearly enjoyed the odd little treat from home. On his arrival on the Africa Mercy, Michael McBrien said he would share a large consignment of crisps — Tayto cheese and onion — with her.

True North: The Mercy Ship, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 10.45pm

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