Canadian medical volunteers help give 100,000 free surgical procedures in West Africa

A 7-month-old patient receives the 100,000th free surgical procedure given by Mercy Ships volunteers.

The Canadian office of international nonprofit Mercy Ships celebrates a major milestone: a baby born with a debilitating cleft lip in Guinea has received free surgery from Mercy Ships volunteers, marking the charity’s 100,000th surgical procedure onboard its hospital ships.

Aissata (EYE-sat-ah), a 7-month-old child, travelled with her mother nearly 200 miles to receive the surgery on the hospital ship Africa Mercy, which has provided free surgeries to more than 2,100 people in Guinea since arriving in August.

For Mercy Ships, the milestone represents an important point in the charity’s 40-year legacy. For Aissata, the free surgery changed the course of her life.

“I have always been very worried about her future and what would happen to her if I didn’t get her the surgery she needs,” says Aissata’s mother, Hassanatou (Ha–SANA–tu). “But now that she has come here to the ship, I am no longer worried.”

Their family is among the world’s estimated five billion people who do not have access to safe, affordable, timely surgery. In sub-Saharan Africa specifically, 93 per cent of the population can’t get the surgery it needs.

The Africa Mercy as the sun sets over the port of Cotonou, Benin 2017.

Mercy Ships addresses this global surgery crisis within Africa by sending hospital ships staffed by volunteers to the places where surgeons are needed most. These surgeons also train local medical professionals who will stay in their home countries, effecting change long after Mercy Ships departs. Mercy Ships has touched more than 2.7 million lives since 1978.

“Seeing Aissata’s new smile after her surgery is an image of the hope and healing we are working to provide for thousands of people in Africa who are without access to surgical care,” Mercy Ships Canada CEO Jamie McIntosh says.

Canada currently has a number of volunteers who were onboard the Africa Mercy when the 100,000th surgery was performed. Over 70 Canadians will serve on the ship this year, donating time and a wide range of skills as nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, sterilizing technicians, dentists, teachers, engineers, electricians and more.

Some volunteers serve for long periods onboard the Africa Mercy, some even living with their families onboard. Others, like Canadian OR Nurse Kim Marlatt, serve in shorter periods. Marlatt just returned from Conakry, Guinea earlier this year after spending her two-week vacation volunteering with the Mercy Ships Ophthalmic Program.

“It was such a life-changing experience for me. One of the weeks I was there, I was doing cataracts on five-month-old babies who were born blind,” she says. “We were giving the gift of sight. The next day, I’d go see the babies in this ward and they were reaching for your face and seeing their moms for the first time,” says Marlatt.

Drissa, plastics patient, before surgery.

The medical volunteers who work with Mercy Ships come from a range of specialties, and help provide surgeries in the Women’s HealthPlastic ReconstructivePalliativeCareOrthopaedicMaxillofacialDentalOphthalmic and General Surgery Programs.

“Our surgical programs change the entire course of our patients’ lives,” says McIntosh. “And by forming partnerships with African nations, together we are building a powerful legacy of hope and healing that’s contributing to the overall development of West and Central Africa.”

After Mercy Ships completes its fourth surgical visit in Guinea in June, the Africa Mercy will sail for Senegal in August. Currently the 2019-20 field service in Senegal has openings for nurses (team leads, OR, ICU, IPC), sterile processing technicians, surgeons and more. To learn more and apply click here or email crew.coordinator@mercyships.ca.