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Volunteering in Madagascar with Mercy Ships

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What’s it like to offer your nursing skills in a country where there are only three hospital beds for every 10,000 people?

A few years ago I heard of an international charity called Mercy Ships when Dr Leo Cheng, a volunteer surgeon, came to my hometown of Cambridge to speak about his inspirational experiences with the charity.

Leo explained that Mercy Ships is an international charity that operates the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, providing free healthcare services to the world’s forgotten poor, namely in West Africa, where the services of professional medical staff are most needed.

The ship is currently docked in Madagascar, where I’ve been volunteering as a paediatric nurse since February this year and I’ll remain until the end of May.

The situation in Madagascar is desperate with over 90% of the population living on just 75p a day. With regards to healthcare, there are only 2 physicians and three hospital beds available for every 10,000 people. The situation really is eye opening when you compare it to the resources we have in the UK.

“The situation in Madagascar is desperate with over 90% of the population living on just 75p a day”

I volunteered with Mercy Ships because they have an excellent track record in delivering humanitarian aid and health care in the developing world, and because I wanted to use my skills to help those less fortunate. I have witnessed so many patients going through a life changing experience thanks to the help and support Mercy Ships is able to provide.

I’ve always been interested in working abroad to use my medical background in places and for people that have so much less than we do in the western world. I found out more about the work and values of Mercy Ships and decided it was something I would love to be a part of.

How many people can say they’ve worked on a hospital ship in far-flung countries?

I’d strongly recommend to anyone to give up some of their annual leave and volunteer on the Africa Mercy – the experience really is life-changing.

It’s quite hard to sum up what it’s like being on the Africa Mercy. There is a real sense of community and family here, and everyone offers their own vital contribution of hope and healing to the people of Madagascar.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a surgeon, a nurse, a lab technician, a cleaner, an IT guy, a translator, a driver, a cook, or one of our many wonderful day crew (local Malagasy’s) that we couldn’t do our job without; everyone plays an equally important role here.

The volunteer medical teams on board the Africa Mercy brings life-changing and life-saving treatments to thousands of patients who would never normally have access to healthcare, in countries where patients often face abuse and social exclusion as their illnesses or deformities are seen as the work of the devil. 

“The Africa Mercy brings life-changing and life-saving treatments to thousands of patients”

A huge part of being a nurse here is just showering the patients with love and affection.

So many have been shunned and made to feel like an outcast because of their outward appearance. It’s amazing that we have time here to sit and play with the kids; play countless games of Jenga, Dominoes and Uno; sit and paint nails (and have your nails painted for you) and cover these gorgeous kids’ faces in stickers.

One of my most memorable patients so far has been an incredibly brave girl called Lixia. She is 16 and has been with us for three months. She came to the ship with her 18 year old sister who is also her caregiver, as both their parents sadly died when they were young children. Lixia suffered bad burns to her right arm and face when she was very little and even though the wounds eventually healed, it left her arm and fingers completely contorted and immobile.

Plastic surgeons on-board have been able release the burns contracture and give her a straight arm using a skin graft from her leg. She has had intense physiotherapy to build her strength.

Her journey has been long but incredibly she is now on the up slope to recovery. Lixia likes lots of hugs, nail polish, making friendship bracelets, and fills the ward with her laughter!

“It is very humbling to get to know patients and their families and play a small part in their lives”

She, like so many patients on board, has amazed me with her bravery and endless smiles. As a nurse, wherever you are in the world and in different contexts, it is very humbling to get to know patients and their families and play a small part in their lives, especially at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.

Ella Glass is a ward nurse on board the Africa Mercy

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