Oban nurse’s mission on Mercy Ships

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An Oban nurse is bringing hope and healing to patients in Africa, aboard a ferry converted into a floating hospital.

Martha Henderson, a 31-year-old radiographer at the Lorn and Islands District General Hospital in Oban, volunteers on the world’s largest civilian hospital ship for a charity called Mercy Ships, which provides medical relief and free surgeries in developing countries such as the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Benin and Togo.

Martha, 31, originally from Thurso, is a radiographer at Oban's Lorn and Islands District Hospital. '‘It is a right of every patient in the world to have the same access to healthcare as we have,' she says.
Martha, 31, originally from Thurso, is a radiographer at Oban’s Lorn and Islands District General Hospital. ‘It is a right of every patient in the world to have the same access to healthcare as we have,’ she says.

The floating hospital, called Africa Mercy, sails to a developing country and docks to a pier for 10 months, most recently to Douala in Cameroon, where Martha has been working from last August until May. Next month Martha, who has been a nurse in the NHS for 10 years, will rejoin the boat off Conakry, the capital of Guinea, after a couple of weeks at home with her family in Thurso.

‘I think free health care is a universal right,’ she explains. ‘Five billion people do not have access to safe, affordable and timely surgery, and that is insane. It is a right of every patient in the world to have the same access to healthcare as we have.’

Mercy Ships, one of the world’s only hospital ships, provides free surgeries in Africa, for children such as Fifalina. Photo: Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships, one of the world’s only hospital ships, provides free surgeries in Africa, for children such as Fifalina. Photograph: Mercy Ships

The boat is like a ‘small town’ with a school, supermarket, launderette, library and gym, with room for 450 staff from 35 nations, equipped with operating theatres, wards, an intensive therapy unit, lab, and a radiology department, where Martha is in charge having served on the Mercy Ships for six years.

The eight-deck Africa Mercy's lower decks are a modern hospital with five Operating theaters, an Intensive Care Unit, an ophthalmic unit, a CT scanner, x-ray, laboratories, and a recovery ward with beds for 82 patients. Photo: Mercy Ships
The eight-deck Africa Mercy’s lower decks are a modern hospital with five operating theatres, an intensive care unit, an ophthalmic unit, a CT scanner, x-ray, laboratories, and a recovery ward with beds for 82 patients. Photograph: Mercy Ships

She says she could not do it without the support of her family, friends and colleagues in the NHS. Mercy Ships is funded by donations, and Martha, like other volunteers, pays £350 per month to live and work aboard, so any money raised by the charity can go to straight to the patients.

‘When we were in Cameroon we did more than 2,000 surgical procedures,’ she said. ‘It is not different conditions but advanced conditions, because they have no access to healthcare. These are conditions of abject poverty. If they were in this country, they would have been treated in the first few months.

Countless people, like Jocelin, suffer and die from 'diseases of poverty' that can easily be cured.
Countless people, like Jocelin, suffer and die from ‘diseases of poverty’ that can easily be cured.

‘The ones that get you the most are the women,’ she said. ‘When women have obstructed labour, they would have a c-section. There, there is no emergency access. The baby gets stuck and often dies, and the woman can be left incontinent. They are at such risk of this condition called VVF.’

Martha explains that after free surgery on the Mercy Ship, ‘they do not leak urine any more, and you see the joy in their faces. If they were here, they would have a c-section and the baby would still be alive.

Dr. Kyley Wood examines Israel before surgery to repair his cleft lip. Photo: Mercy Ships
Dr Kyley Wood examines Israel before surgery to repair his cleft lip. Photograph: Mercy Ships

‘We do the CT scan and depending on what we find we can do surgery or not,’ she says. ‘We have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I feel very privileged that I can show kindness to patients in that situation and tell them we are there to help them.

Ortho patient Pierre doing rehab exercises with physical therapist Laura Blundell. Photo: Mercy Ships
Ortho patient Pierre doing rehab exercises with physical therapist Laura Blundell. Photograph: Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships is a Christian organisation but it is there to serve patients of all faiths and none, and not everyone on board is a Christian.

‘The Bible tells you that we should look after the poor and offer practical assistance,’ Martha said, pointing to a scripture that called her to the NHS and overseas on the Mercy Ships, Isaiah 61, verses 1-3:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners.

‘A lot of our patients are suffering,’ she explains: ‘They are cast aside because of their condition. They are in darkness. The aim is to bring hope and healing. When the ship comes, that is the hope: the hope that they can be freed from their suffering. What better message could you bring to somebody?’

The first patient of the field service is carried up the gangway. Photo: Mercy Ships
The first patient of the field service is carried up the gangway. Photograph: Mercy Ships

You can read Martha’s blog at www.trustinginmercy.wordpress.com