A lecture and a home visit

Today is a ship holiday. We have a long weekend every six weeks, and this is my first, so I’m excited to have a little extra downtime. I decided to blog today, so that I can spend the weekend really relaxing, maybe visit some patients on deck 3, maybe go to the beach, maybe do some laundry, maybe read a book. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. I like the sound of that.

It’s been a short, but eventful, week that included some more of the usual heart-string tugging moments, a lecture on Wednesday night, and a post-cataract-op visit to a young seven-year old boy.

Every Wednesday evening on the Africa Mercy there is an hour-long medical presentation, during which one of the doctors on the ship talks about what it is that they do in the OR. This past Wednesday Mark Shrime, one of the maxillofacial surgeons onboard, presented some research findings from the Guinea field service.

In short (and to save you googling) maxillofacial surgery treats diseases, injuries, abnormalities and cancers of the mouth, jaws and face. If left untreated this is often a life-threatening condition for both adults and children. It often includes the removal of a lump or tumour, that has been untreated for many years and sometime has grown to an unimaginable size – as in the case of Sambany from Madagascar.

But back to the research… Mercy Ships is funding some research that amongst other things looks at how effective the organisation is; what the barriers of access to safe surgery are; and how they can be overcome. The entire presentation was fascinating, but what really stood out for me is that an unplanned expense of ten per cent of your annual income can result in financial ruin, regardless of where you live in the world (the terms he used were more eloquent, but I think this sums it up).

So, in our context here, having access to safe surgery is great, but there are still barriers – an example of an unplanned expense is having to pay for the transportation to the ship. A person can be given a date to come to the ship for surgery, but if they are, for example 600kms away, it is unlikely that they can afford to get themselves there, to take up the opportunity of free surgery.

Mercy Ships has been looking at various ways of funding the actual transport, from up-country locations, to the Ports at which the ship docks, to make it easier for the population to access the free surgery onboard. Sometimes there are patients that can afford to make the trip, but in such a poor part of the world, I can only imagine that it is never without some sacrifice.

Which is a great lead into my home visit story…

Yesterday Lara (photographer), Micah (videographer), Amadou (translator) and I went to visit a seven-year old boy (who had cataract surgery a few weeks back). We had visited him and his mom prior to his surgery (that was my first ever home visit). They are currently staying with family on the outskirts of Dakar. The little boy would normally stay with his grandmother in a village, a twelve-hour ferry trip away from the Port of Dakar. Mom works in another region of Senegal, also a substantial distance away. They have been in the capital for the past two months or so, and I can only imagine it’s been a real treat to be able to spend some good quality time together. Nonetheless, I would guess that an additional cost to the family is time away from home and work.

We’ve gotten to know the little boy and his mom quite well these past few weeks, with our language barrier being beautifully bridged by the many  day crew who translate for us. Mom and her hubby have five children, two boys and three girls. The eldest son was also born with cataracts, but he was unfortunately too old to have surgery on the Africa Mercy, as it would not have made any difference to his eyesight.

As it’s customary to bring a gift, that the family can share with their community, with when we visit, we bought some rice and soap just after setting off. We also had a gift for the young boy. We wanted to bring him something that would stimulate his eye-brain communication, as kids who are born with cataracts haven’t experienced natural development of sight, so it can take them a little while to figure things out. I guess I’d been expecting a ‘miraculous’ result after the operation, so was a bit despondent initially and wanted to make sure we did everything we could, while we still had easy contact. The Eye Screening department were incredibly helpful, and gave me a boccia ball set, with little bells in it, that was in a Sight Box donated by an organisation affiliated to Rotary.

We weren’t sure what to expect, as we hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, but boy, were we hoping that he could see better than the last time we’d seen him at his first check-up. We weren’t disappointed, there was a definite improvement!

While Lara and Micah were getting footage and photos to document his journey, I found myself put in charge of distracting an extended family of children. I thought I’d try teach them how to play boccia ball, however, my experience of entertaining and playing with children is rather limited. Add the language barrier and the children’s energetic enthusiasm, and it wasn’t long before the wheels came off. Lara found me a little while later with a courtyard of children doing cartwheels and handstands, or running around with their shirts over their heads,. When Amadou joined us shortly after, we were able to successfully explain the game to mom and the kids, and to my amazement our young patient’s ball skills are pretty amazing.

His are the blue ones!

After we had exhausted the kids, we started packing up all the equipment. Meanwhile Micah was in charge of getting the Mercy Ships vehicle out of the deep soft sand we’d managed to get it stuck in earlier… That little adventure just added to the post-home-visit high we were on in the car on the way back to the Africa Mercy.

A really special moment of this visit for me was when the family gifted me with a traditional Senegalese dress. I’ll be wearing it next Tuesday, when my friends come to the dock for the Celebration of Sight event (will see if I can get one of the photographers to take a good pic of us!). It is an event attended by all the little cataract patients and Mossane will be there too. We’ll be visiting her at home in the next few weeks and I’m sure there’ll be a good story there too!

I think I must have one of the best jobs onboard – apart from maybe being a doctor, or a nurse. I get to experience the whole journey with a handful of patients. I feel the depth of their appreciation, and see the potential impact on their lives. I get to know more about them and their circumstances. I get to hear all the thank you’s and “God bless Mercy Ships” during almost every patient interaction. I really need to find a way to effectively communicate and share this incredible gratitude with the rest of the Africa Mercy family.

If you’d like to, or are able to support me during my time with Mercy Ships, in any way, please visit my supporters page here.

Everything communicated here reflects my own personal opinion and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships.




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    Chrissy, I’m loving hearing of your continuing adventures. What a joy and privilege to be so intimately involved in patients and families journeys from despair to hope. Thrilled to hear that Mossane is doing well. Missing Africa Mercy very much….

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