Dispatches from the Africa Mercy III #5 (Final Dispatch): Crossing the Bridge
Photo Caption: Dr. Emil with nurses, patients, and parents during the last day on the Africa Mercy.
The final day on the Africa Mercy is always the most difficult, not physically but emotionally. In our operating room hall meeting, it is not uncommon for operating room crew of all types – nurses, anesthesiologists, anesthesia technicians, surgeons – to shed tears as they receive their certificate of service. I am no exception. I have to work hard to hold back tears as I thank everyone for the lessons they have again taught us. It is a bittersweet moment – a separation anxiety of sorts.
The day’s emotions are heightened by the follow-up clinic, where I see most of the patients I have operated on during this mission. Little children, who a few days ago anxiously entered a foreign Ship full of strange-looking people, now return full of smiles, dispensing warm and spontaneous hugs liberally to the nurses and doctors. Teenagers who were despondent and flat, burdened by their disability when I met them in the screening clinic, are now beaming with pride at their new body image and abilities. The story of the Africa Mercy is told over and over through each of these lives.
The emotions are not only heightened by our encounter with the patients, but also by our encounter with the staff – so many acts of genuine kindness and love towards Etienne and I on our final day – until the final moment of departure from the dock. As I descend the gangway with my luggage, I can’t help but think of those who will ascend it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that to continue the work. I almost feel envious of those yet to join this ever-changing community. On the dock, I thank Merrill, the OR supervisor, marveling at her amazing coordination that enabled me to perform 46 procedures on 32 patients. “You know, the idea of the Africa Mercy would never work on paper,” she reminds me. “It only works in real life.”
A few days ago, I was dining in the cafeteria with Gary Parker, the chief medical officer who has lived and operated on the Africa Mercy for the last 30 years. “This Ship is a bridge between two worlds”, he tells me. “Between our societies where much is available and Africa where little is available.” And as I sit writing this on Air France Flight 982 heading from Paris to Montreal, I can’t help but feel that I am also crossing the bridge back to what I left behind a month ago. And as I cross the bridge, excited and eager to see my wife and daughters after a long absence, I also can’t help but to keep looking back at that other world – the world where things happen in real life that can never be planned on paper.
Many have followed these dispatches over these last three weeks – thank you all for taking this journey with me. The last message I shared from the Africa Mercy in Madagascar over two years ago was this: The real story of the Africa Mercy is not just about free surgical care among the poorest of the poor of Africa. It is not just about planting hope in the midst of despair. It is not just about capacity building in resource-poor countries. It is not even just about making a difference in the lives of tens of thousands– one life at a time – one country at a time. The real story of the Africa Mercy is about mercy – a merciful community, diverse and always changing, that has chosen to show its love through its actions. And in a world where evil is not only done, but also often celebrated, advertised, and paraded, the people of the Africa Mercy remind us of what we as humans can accomplish if we are driven by mercy.
And this remains my last message today.
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 3 weeks, he will be part of the volunteer crew of the Africa Mercy, currently docked in Douala, Cameroon. 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.