by Dr Graham White
Graham is a junior doctor specialising in anaesthetics in Scotland; he has an interest in global health and has worked in various countries in Africa.
When the opportunity arose to combine my profession, faith and sense of adventure on a medical mission to Central Africa, I felt that God had undoubtedly opened this door. Exactly what was on the other side remained largely unknown until I arrived in the port of Douala, Cameroon, in September 2017 to begin five months of voluntary service with the Christian medical charity, Mercy Ships. My life and work were based on board the largest civilian floating hospital on Earth, the Africa Mercy, where I, along with around 400 other volunteers from around the world, lived and served together in a community of faith.
In Cameroon, the health inequality that exists in our world becomes quickly and starkly clear. There is widespread poverty and a lack of access to safe, affordable healthcare. Walking up and down the gangway of the ship each day, I saw patients with illnesses that are unseen in resource-rich countries. One three-month-old baby boy named Paul, who arrived shortly after I did, is a prime example of the great need. While I arrived in Douala by aeroplane, Paul came with his mother on the back of a motorbike from a very poor village outside the city. He weighed the same as a premature baby. Paul was severely malnourished because he was born with a cleft lip and palate that made him unable to feed properly. His parents, too poor to afford any additional nutrition, let alone the surgical operation required to correct the underlying problem, brought him to the ship in desperation.
Faith in Action
Sharing God’s love and using our gifts to serve others is central to living as a Christian, but never before have I experienced this in such a practical and tangible way. One of the objectives of Mercy Ships is to build a lasting legacy that will benefit everyone in each country it visits, and it was my role to contribute to the realisation of this aim. While free, life-changing surgeries continued at the port, I spent days and sometimes weeks on end with a small group of five people, travelling the length and breadth of the land. In Cameroon, standards of surgery and anaesthesia are significantly lower than in the Western world and for those people who can afford a surgical operation, it comes with significant risks. Our task was to visit 37 different hospitals around the country and deliver a training programme to the local healthcare professionals that would improve the safety of surgical procedures performed there.
Sharing God’s love and using our gifts to serve others is central to living as a Christian, but never before have I experienced this in such a practical and tangible way.
The team consisted of three UK-based volunteers and two locally appointed Cameroonian doctors who were essential to the facilitation of the project. Their local knowledge, language skills, clinical experience of working in these hospitals and all-round enthusiasm for making a difference in their country was invaluable to our success.
When instructing on these courses, it was humbling to work alongside doctors and nurses who have limited resources and training, yet face these challenges with boundless resilience. Equipment, teaching and encouragement were always gratefully received and over 600 health professionals received training throughout all ten provinces of the country. Our Cameroonian colleagues are now able to continue to train others in the country, ensuring the sustainability of the project.
I encountered many challenges and difficulties during my time on mission. Long hours, language barriers, cultural differences, flat tyres, overpowering humidity, power cuts and insects, to name but a few. However, by far the worst was when we had to turn people away. Although the work of the ship is great, the need is greater. The capacity for free operations was quickly filled, leaving no space for late arrivals. During our visits upcountry, many heard of our arrival and came to ask, sometimes begging or crying on their knees, that they or their child could come to the ship for treatment. Nothing is more heartbreaking than having to explain that we could not help those in need of care, but sometimes it did allow an opportunity to pray with people that God would draw near to them and grant them strength and peace in their suffering.
Several people said they believed God had answered their prayers…
Celebration of Sight
I often wonder what it would have been like to witness the reactions of people who were miraculously healed on the spot by Jesus. I imagine it may be similar to what I experienced when I was invited to attend Mercy Ships’ Celebration of Sight, held in true African style. The ophthalmic team perform over 2,000 free eye operations during each field service. Limited or even complete loss of vision caused by certain eye conditions can be surgically corrected. These events are held several weeks after surgery and many patients return to the eye clinic where jubilant dancing, singing and praising of God take place in a colourful ceremony. A time is dedicated for patients to say a few words if they wish and many take this opportunity. It was an emotional experience listening to how some of these people had struggled for years due to their blindness. Some had lost all hope and others had prayed earnestly for God to intervene miraculously and restore their sight. Several people said they believed God had answered their prayers by sending Mercy Ships and I felt incredibly blessed to watch how passionately they wanted to glorify God that day.
A Community of Faith
On board the Africa Mercy, volunteers from all over the world live, work and socialise together. Some people are there for as little as two weeks and others have lived and worked there for over 30 years, performing a range of different medical and non-medical work. There is no short supply of incredibly inspiring individuals who all have a heart for serving in mission. I enjoyed getting to know many of these people during my time there. The ship describes itself as a community of faith and there are regular meetings each week where volunteers are invited to attend to worship Jesus, pray together or receive biblical teaching from the many chaplains on board. This was often a time I looked forward to, when I could refocus on the bigger picture of our mission and hear many stories of how God’s work was being done right there on the ship and beyond.
These community meetings were also an opportunity to hear about patients who were receiving treatment on board, pray for specific people or problems and give thanks for the healing and transformation of lives on board the ship. Baby Paul was one of the people who captured the hearts of many of the volunteers. We saw how small and weak he was on his arrival, slowly and surely being nurtured until he was strong enough to undergo his corrective surgery.Eventually, the time came for him to leave the ship and go home with a bright future ahead of him – a powerful testament to the work of this charity, with which I was privileged to serve.
In short, serving in mission with Mercy Ships was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, and I am confident that I will be back again in the future as the organisation looks to expand. I would certainly endorse volunteering with Mercy Ships to anyone looking for mission opportunities and with a heart for serving some of the world’s poorest people.