Floating hospital brings hope, healing to those in need

Categories: Around the Diocese

Resident in monastery’s Studium program served on ship for three years documenting patients’ stories

By Joanne Thibault
For The Visitor


Joanne Thibault volunteered for three years with Mercy Ships, a Christian-based charity that operates the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship providing free specialized surgeries to the people of Africa.

Being a resident of the Studium program at St. Benedict’s Monastery is an ideal setting for my quest. My three months of self-directed study are designed to bring me closer to Scripture through all that I encounter in the rich variety that we sing and read in the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass.

In daily prayer and worship I also look for biblical expressions that speak to all that I have learned, observed and experienced in the past three years. During those three years, I was a volunteer with Mercy Ships, a Christian-based charity that operates the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship providing free specialized surgeries to the people of Africa.

I lived and volunteered alongside 450 or so like-minded Christians (and some not) from over 35 nations who served anywhere from weeks to decades in a wide variety of medical, technical, administrative and service roles. In the course of a year, more than 1,200 volunteers would come and go. We paid our own expenses (room, board, transportation, medical insurance, vaccinations), often with support from families, churches and other donors who believed in the work of Mercy Ships.

As a writer of patient stories on board the Africa Mercy, I learned that there was much about the work of Mercy Ships to believe in.

There is a lot of hope and healing on board this amazing 13,000-square-foot state-of-the-art floating hospital that featured six operating rooms, 78 patient beds, a four-bed recovery/intensive care unit, plus a CT scanner, X-ray, laboratory, pharmacy and a Nikon Coolscope for remote diagnosis.

From this secure and self-sufficient hospital ship platform, Mercy Ships offer free specialized surgeries to the poorest coastal nations in Africa. The Africa Mercy sails to the nation being served, usually for 10 months at a time, docking at the port city able to berth a large hospital ship.

Restoring wholeness

Before the ship arrives, people throughout the country who have medical conditions that Mercy Ships can treat are invited to attend local screenings for possible selection for surgery. News about the free medical care available is broadcast via radio, community clinics, churches and word of mouth. Posters with photos of the conditions that Mercy Ships can treat are widely distributed to help ensure that those we can help come to the screenings.

The surgeries available are ones that remove benign tumors, goiters, hernias and cataracts; repair cleft lips/palates, misshapen or disfigured limbs and birth injuries, and restore wholeness and mobility to areas damaged by disease or injury.

There are a number of reasons for this focus. The conditions Mercy Ships treat generally require only one surgery, allowing more people to be healed. Recovery from these surgeries is quick enough so that patients can be safely discharged into their own care by the time the Africa Mercy moves on to the next country.

But, most important of all, Mercy Ships surgeries focus on removing or reducing visible disfigurements at the same time that functionality is being restored. Dr. Gary Parker, chief medical officer and a 27-year veteran of volunteer service explains: “Every human being has the right to look human, to be treated as human, to have a place at the table of the human race. When you have been deprived that seat, and it’s offered to you again . . . to be able to re-enter the human race and to look like everyone else . . . that’s a fantastic thing.”

In addition to providing the medical care needed for physical healing, Mercy Ships’ volunteers also tend to the emotional and spiritual needs of patients through compassionate care, companionship and professional counseling from hospital chaplains.

This human side of care is so vital because many patients have endured years of rejection, isolation and shaming as a result of their physically evident conditions.

Once patients no longer need in-hospital care, they continue their treatment as outpatients. To provide safe and healthy accommodation for outpatients, Mercy Ships finds and transforms an uninhabitable hospital wing close to the ship into the HOPE Center, a fully renovated 80-bed residence.

When the HOPE Center is turned back to the community at the end of the Mercy Ships’ field service, the residence takes on a new locally determined purpose, such as a maternal health ward.

One man’s story


Sambany, a 60-year-old man from a remote area of Madagascar, was able to have surgery on Africa Mercy to remove a steadily expanding tumor that protruded from this head, neck and shoulders.

Mercy Ships, who serves all, regardless of faith, age or gender, bases its care on a very high standard of “following the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus.” During each 10-month field service, about 2,500 people receive free, life changing surgeries.

Since Mercy Ships began in 1978 almost 75,000 surgeries have been completed. Indeed, a thousand Pulitzer Prize-winning authors couldn’t begin to capture all of the stories of Mercy Ships’ hope and healing.

Here is the story of Sambany, that while extreme, is a great example of how Mercy Ships serves as “the face of God’s love in action,” another way that volunteers express the responsibility we each assume when fulfilling our respective roles.

Sambany, a 60-year-old man from a remote area of Madagascar, suffered an unimaginable burden. For 20 years a steadily expanding tumor grew to ultimately protrude from this head, neck and shoulders. In his suffering he gave up hope of ever being healed. In his own words he said, “I was waiting to die. Every day. I was just waiting to die.”

When a friend told him that a hospital ship was in Tamatave (where the Africa Mercy was docked), Sambany decided to follow his friend’s advice and go. He and his grandson walked for three days to the highway. They then traveled by taxi for four hours to reach the Africa Mercy.

Dr. Parker, likely the only surgeon on earth with the experience needed to remove a tumor as large as Sambany’s, determined that he could do the surgery, but he advised his patient of the great risk. Sambany responded, “I’m just happy. I know without surgery I will die. I know I might die in surgery, but I already feel dead inside from the way I’m treated. I choose to have surgery.”

Sambany needed a lot of blood during his 12-hour surgery, so 17 Africa Mercy volunteers donated their own blood, another special contribution volunteers make. Throughout the ship, volunteers also prayed continuously for Sambany’s surgery to be successful.

Thousands of people around the world added their prayers and connected to this amazing story through Mercy Ships social media.
After 12 hours of surgery, Sambany’s 16.45-pound tumor was gone, along with years of physical suffering, emotional anguish and spiritual despair. Today, he is healed and back at home with his wife and family.

In my first week at Studium, when we read Psalm 88 in morning prayer, I found a powerfully accurate expression of what I think Sambany and many of the patients who shared their stories with me felt as they endured such depths of suffering. During the days, weeks, months and years they called and cried out for relief from their horrific conditions, they felt “forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave.”

But, regardless of the hopelessness of Psalm 88, hope always exists, just as life-transforming surgeries exist. As Sambany and thousands like him have experienced firsthand, the unexpected arrival of a hospital ship offering these free life-changing surgeries to them is proof that “wonders are known in the darkness.”

Joanne Thibault volunteered for three years with the organization Mercy Ships as an interview journalist aboard the hospital ship Africa Mercy following her retirement as a planner and strategist for the provincial government of Manitoba in Winnipeg, where she was a member of St. Jean Brebeuf Parish.

Among her tasks on Africa Mercy were to describe the conditions of African patients who had been provided with free surgery as well as writing how their lives were bettered following their treatment. After this summer’s term at the Studium at St. Benedict’s Monastery, she will resume her work with the Mercy Ships organization in Victoria, British Columbia, developing their network of speakers.

To learn more about Mercy Ships, visit www.mercyships.org and the Mercy Ships’ channel on YouTube and Vimeo.