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Blue Skies Ahead with Mercy Ships at the Helm

Serving the Forgotten Poor

By Marianne Duffey | Photography submitted by Mercy Ships

Political debates regarding health care have been center stage in the media for months and have become fodder for daily conversations with friends, family, and coworkers. No matter which side of the debate one chooses, it’s an inspiration to know about the amazing healing, hope, and mercy that is already being provided by others.

Cofounded by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships is a global charity that operates a fleet of hospital ships. Following the example of Jesus, Mercy Ships brings hope and healing to “the forgotten poor” by mobilizing people and resources worldwide. It began in 1978 with the purchase of the retired ocean liner, Anastasis. Since that time, various ships of the fleet have served more than 150 ports in developing nations around the world and have brought lasting change to millions. One ship, the Caribbean Mercy, called to port in Pensacola on more than one occasion.

serving the forgotten poor blue skies ahead with africa mercy ships at the helm

When giving is the primary objective of an organization, its funding relies on the gifts of money and time by others. The awesome undertaking by Mercy Ships is provided for, in part, through the generous support from corporate partners such as Johnson & Johnson, Alcon, 3M, and Hospira, not to mention the financial support from many churches and charitable individuals. In 2007, Nikon United Kingdom named Mercy Ships its charity of the year; the corporate sponsor had generously donated a Nikon COOLSCOPE to the Anastasis in 2005, which has since been transferred to the current flagship, Africa Mercy. Another significant sponsor is Rotary International, an organization of service clubs located all over the world. The benevolent support of the Oak Foundation is openly honored with a plaque bearing its name at the entrance of the hospital vessel.

Mercy Ships’ current vessel, Africa Mercy, was acquired in 1999 and is currently in Benin, West Africa. Converted from a Danish rail ferry, it is now the world’s largest nongovernmental state-of-the-art hospital ship. Sponsored by corporate and individual donors, it was transformed with the addition of six operating theatres and a 78-bed patient ward. Their ship boasts an impressive average crew of 450. The floating hospital is divided into quadrants that comprise operating theatres, supply/services, recovery/intensive care, and low-dependency wards. The surgical capacity is expected to exceed 5,000 onboard surgical interventions per year. The volunteer staff perform cataract removal/lens implant, tumor removal, cleft lip and palate reconstruction, dental procedures, and orthopedic and obstetric fistula repair. Their diagnostic services include CT scans, X-ray imaging, and laboratory analyses. The Nikon COOLSCOPE allows doctors to obtain instant diagnoses over the Internet from pathologists based in the United Kingdom. The diagnostic information, along with all other data and telephone calls, is transmitted via an onboard satellite communication system.

In addition to the enormous medical contributions that Mercy Ships provide, they also provide community empowerment programs designed to empower and facilitate increased well-being. They astutely recognize that for change to be substantial, it must be grounded with a change in community thinking. Therefore, they provide rehabilitation programs, small business and skills training, women’s empowerment projects, community health education, clean water and sanitation programs, agricultural programs, and HIV/AIDS intervention programs.

serving the forgotten poor blue skies ahead with africa mercy ships at the helm  

I recently had the privilege of meeting Kathie Connelly, Mercy Ship’s regional development manager in New England. She and her husband, Peter, work together out of their home office in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Kathie and Peter were originally introduced to Mercy Ships years ago at a church service. They were so inspired by what they heard, they knew that they wanted to be involved—the Mercy Ships message spoke to their hearts. At the time, they were parents to two young children, Mary Elizabeth and Dennis. Both children, now young adults, have had complicated medical issues since birth. The Connellys remembered thinking that their children have benefited from the best medical care the world has to offer and imagining the hardship and sorrow of those not able to obtain adequate medical care. Their involvement began when they spoke to Don Stephens. He said he could use them right where they were to build and grow Mercy Ships presence in New England. They were thrilled!


In 2000, the Connellys participated in a five-month training program in Texas. Now, with almost ten years working with Mercy Ships, the Connellys recruit medical and nonmedical volunteers for Mercy Ships programs. They also raise money and awareness by speaking at hospitals, Rotary Clubs, schools and churches. The recruits include surgeons for the ship’s core competencies: orthopedics, ophthalmology, dental and women’s issues. Kathie, herself a critical care nurse, feels at home speaking directly with these health care professionals. When speaking to recruits following their volunteer assignment, Kathie remarks that the common response from the participants is that the experience was so profound that their lives will never be the same.

The M/V Africa Mercy in port in Cotonou, Benin with fishing canoes in the foreground
The M/V Africa Mercy in port in Cotonou, Benin with fishing canoes in the foreground

serving the forgotten poor blue skies ahead with africa mercy ships at the helm
serving the forgotten poor blue skies ahead with africa mercy ships at the helm

The Mercy Ships story cannot be fully appreciated and understood without knowing about some of the people whose lives have been transformed. For instance, there’s nine-year-old Edoh, who had a huge growth distending the entire left side of her face, pushing its way through the bone. This condition not only caused terrible disfigurement, but also difficulty in eating. Today, after several successful onboard surgeries, Edoh’s growth has been substantially reduced, and she now looks forward to finishing school so she can be trained as a nurse. Pricilla’s crossed eyes not only impaired her vision, but also caused her to be ridiculed because of her appearance. When Mercy Ships sailed into her town in Ghana, they performed a life-changing operation. Aside from her improved vision, Pricilla no longer faces a future filled with ridicule. Justine and Parra were the first two women to receive corrective surgeries for obstetric fistula during the 2009 Field Service in Benin. Their injuries, the result of obstructed childbirth, are common in places where medical intervention is not available. In over 90 percent of the cases, the baby does not survive and the mother becomes incontinent. As a result, the women are often shunned by their communities and even their families. Not only did Mercy Ships perform the corrective surgery to heal the women, but volunteers also honored them with a ceremony of new beginnings, which included giving each woman a new dress. Justine and Parra’s ceremony celebrated new hope and new life. “I have so much to thank God for. I feel no pain in my body and I feel happy in my heart,” Justine said.


From the ship’s captain to the volunteers, from the founders who had a vision to the doctors and corporations who donate their time and services—the people involved with Mercy Ships give hope to us all. Their selfless acts are an inspiration to each of us. They also serve as a reminder that the plight of many is much worse than our own. The worsening economy has created (or at least re-created) camaraderie in communities across America and the world. By bonding together in service to one another, the world can be a better place.

Soon, in early 2010, the Africa Mercy will be headed to Togo, West Africa, where it will continue to bring hope and healing.

For more information about helping with this incredible work of mercy, you can log on to www.mercyships.org or call (800) 772-SHIP (7447).

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