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Mercy ship brings basic hospital care to West Africa

The Africa Mercy, a charity-funded hospital ship docked in Sierra Leone, provides the most sophisticated medical facility in the region.

By Paige McClanahanCorrespondent / November 18, 2011

The hospital ship Africa Mercy, now docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone, provides basic surgeries in a country where medical care is scare. It's staffed by volunteers and funded by nonprofit groups.

Courtesy of Mercy Ships

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Freetown, Sierra Leone

Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest hospital in New England, has 10 CT scanners, the high-tech imaging devices that are used to detect everything from bone fractures to tumors to strokes.

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Sierra Leone, a West African nation with a population of nearly 6 million, has only one CT scanner, and it’s currently afloat in the Atlantic Ocean.

But it’s being put to excellent use.

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That’s because the scanner is in the able hands of the crew of the Africa Mercy, an eight-deck ship that’s been docked in Freetown’s ramshackle harbor since February. The ship, a floating hospital staffed by Western doctors and nurses, is offering free surgeries to Sierra Leoneans, who desperately need its services.

“They’re just crying out for the most basic care,” says Dr. Gary Parker, the chief medical officer aboard the Africa Mercy, which is owned by a Texas-based NGO called Mercy Ships. “Health care is either physically not available or it’s financially unaffordable,” he says. “That’s the story, and you can repeat that story all up and down West Africa.”

With its CT scanner, X-ray machine, blood lab, 78 patient beds, and six operating theaters, the Africa Mercy is easily the most advanced health facility within hundreds of miles. But the ship’s doctors have a limited remit: They perform only those procedures that can deliver significant health benefits with the need for relatively little follow-up care.

The doctors offer plastic surgery to treat  scars left by burns, they repair hernias and cleft palates, they remove cataracts and decaying teeth. But they don’t treat cancer or offer heart surgery or emergency trauma surgeries, which require long-term care.

Still, the free medical services that are available aboard the Africa Mercy provide care beyond the prescription drugs that are offered by many well-meaning Western doctors who pass through this country, where the average person earns about $700 annually and where life expectancy is just 48 years.

The Africa Mercy – whose operations are funded by foundations, private individuals, churches, and corporate sponsors – has been jumping from port to port along the West African coast since 2007, when it replaced an older Mercy Ships vessel. The organization as a whole has been offering free surgeries in the region for more than 20 years.

Here in Freetown, the ship has stayed full of patients since it pulled into the harbor nine months ago. In total, the crew will have performed more than 3,000 surgeries on board by the time the ship weighs anchor next month to head to its next stop, in nearby Togo.

Fatmata Swarray, a lively young woman from Kenema, in eastern Sierra Leone, was severely burned when a lamp set fire to her home. She received some basic treatment at the clinic in her hometown, but the doctors there weren’t able to repair the damage that been done to her skin.

Two months ago, she had a skin graft aboard the Africa Mercy, and since then she’s been living on board, receiving physical therapy and other follow-up treatment. She says the operation has changed her life.

“When I first came to the ship I wasn’t able to move my head or raise my arms [because of the scars], but now I can hold my baby and wash clothes,” says Ms. Swarray, who’s the mother of a four-month old boy. “I’m very happy.”

Swarray’s operation was performed by one of the volunteer surgeons aboard the ship, and she’s been cared for by volunteer nurses as she recovers. About one-third of the crew are Americans, while the rest hail from Europe, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and more than a dozen other countries.

Many of the volunteers come for a few weeks at a time; others, like Dr. Parker, the chief medical officer, have been on board for years.

“There are more than enough surgeons to do the job in the West,” says Dr. Parker, a California native who has worked for Mercy Ships since 1986. “This is not high-tech surgery. It’s very basic surgery, but that’s what they need.”

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