Dispatches from the Africa Mercy # 2: Can it get any better?
February 29, 2015, 21:45: As I settle in for the night after my first day of work on the Africa Mercy, I find myself marveling at what can be achieved when good people commit to a mission, no matter how hard, no matter how challenging. Yesterday, I had a two-hour conversation over coffee with Dr. Gary Parker, the chief medical officer of the Africa Mercy. Gary is one of those people who strengthen your faith in humanity. A craniofacial surgeon, originally from California, he and has family have called the Africa Mercy home for 29 years. His two children were raised on the ship and were educated in its fully accredited school. Gary has tackled some of the most difficult craniofacial problems seen in the world, and is probably the world’s foremost expert on resection of aggressive tumors and mandibular reconstruction, yet he exudes humility and expresses a genuine desire to continue to learn from others. (Left-hand image: Dr. Emil with Don Stephens, founder of Mercy Ships).
A few hours after meeting Gary, I jump into the operating room rather unexpectedly. I came here to perform elective, planned, operations. But in the late afternoon, my cabin phone rings, and I find Chris Elliott on the line. Chris is an American military surgeon stationed in Germany, who is using 75% of his annual leave time to volunteer on the Africa Mercy, leaving a big family behind. We knew we would be here together at the same time, but were unable to connect prior to our arrival. Chris calls me about a little boy who had undergone a hernia repair several weeks earlier by another surgeon and is back with a recurrent incarcerated hernia. I rush to the ward to confirm Chris’s impression. The child does not look well, and we rush him to the operating room. My first procedure on the Africa Mercy is an emergency procedure, a great way to jump in head first into a new OR. All goes well. “Chris, there is no better place for two surgeons to first meet than in the OR,” I tell him.
I wake up this morning to a real treat. Don Stephens, the founder of Mercy Ships, is on board, and flying out today. I had read so much about Don after I first learned of Mercy Ships, and would recommend his book, Ships of Mercy, to anyone who would like to see how one person’s dream could translate into something larger than life. I am able to have a brief conversation with Don, and take some pictures with him, before he leaves the Ship.
The rest of the day is spent in the screening clinic, where I see 35 patients with pediatric surgical problems. These patients have been screened all over Madagascar by nursing staff and have been brought to Tamatave at the expense of Mercy Ships. Mirjam Plomp, a young Dutch nurse who has been on the Ship, and frequently off the Ship screening throughout the country for more than 3 years, leads the screening team. I am in awe of what she and her team have accomplished. Their diagnostic accuracy and appropriate patient selection makes my job easy. In addition, the efficiency of the screening process is amazing. I thought I was going to see patients through the late evening, but we are done by 3 PM and moving on to other matters. (Above image: Dr. Emil with the Africa Mercy Screening Team).
I return to my cabin before dinner for a few minutes of rest to find a very special gift – my luggage just arrived after three days in limbo. Everything is intact, including some surgical supplies I will be using in my first elective OR tomorrow. Can it get any better?!
Dr. Sherif Emil is a pediatric surgeon and Director of the Division of Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery at the Montreal Children's Hospital. Over the 2 weeks, he will be part of the volunteer crew of the Africa Mercy, currently docked in Tamatave, Madagascar. The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship dedicated to bringing hope and healing to tens of thousands of the world's impoverished populations.