mercy ships cape town south africa

Mercy Ships – A Vessel of Hope and Healing

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February 13, 2012

– by Nancy Predaina, Mercy Ships Editor

Imagine a ship that sails into the poorest nations on earth to deliver world-class health care.  Now imagine that the health care is absolutely free.  This may seem impossible, but this is precisely what the international non-profit, Mercy Ships, does.

Since 1978, Mercy Ships has used hospital ships to deliver state-of-the-art medical care to developing countries.  To date, Mercy Ships has performed services valued at more than $1 billion, impacting about 2.35 million people.

The nations served by Mercy Ships are very carefully selected.  Most rank at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI) as measured by the United Nations.  West Africa features predominantly on this index.  Mercy Ships has served numerous African nations including Liberia, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone. Most people in West Africa have heard of the “big white hospital ship.”  In fact, some people wait for months, even years, for the ship to come to their country.  For many people, Mercy Ships is their only hope for medical care.

The M/V Africa Mercy, the current Mercy Ships vessel, is the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship.  It contains 6 operating rooms, patient wards, ICU/Recovery, CT-scan and X-ray, and a laboratory.  It serves as home to a volunteer crew of 450 individuals from 40 nations.  The crew includes both medical and non-medical personnel who perform a wide range of jobs – surgeons, nurses, teachers, engineers, cooks, etc.  Each individual is one piece in a large community working together with one common goal … to alleviate suffering by helping as many men, women, and children as possible.

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Serving with Mercy Ships is a unique and fulfilling way for maritime professionals to use their skills to help change lives!  The maritime crew comes from many countries around the world, volunteering their time and skills to serve with Mercy Ships.  The time of service can be anything from four weeks up to many years.  Often they bring their families with them, and their children may attend the onboard accredited Academy, which provides classes for nursery school through high school.

The maritime crew not only navigate the hospital ship to the countries we serve, but they also keep engines and all vital systems functioning properly so that the state-of-the-art hospital ship can fulfill its mission of transforming lives.  The Africa Mercy offers its patients and crew a comfortable environment with air-conditioning, lighting, hot water, bathrooms, and computers – quite unlike anything available in developing countries.  In addition, a hospital ship requires special equipment that must be maintained – for example, compressors to furnish medical oxygen – and equipment breakdowns must be addressed immediately in order to keep patient care unaffected.  Power and services to the hospital must be uninterrupted as a power outage could endanger patients’ lives.

For many mariners, this experience will be very different from any other maritime experiences they have had.  For example, the ship spends much more time in port – usually ten months – than at sea.  Since the ship serves in developing countries, the crew may encounter unusual situations.  For instance, the main engines and propulsion systems must be ready for sea departure at a moment’s notice in case of political unrest in the host country.  Also, water pollution in the port can clog sea water intakes, which are used for cooling generators and engines.  So, dive teams have to clean the intakes often, sometimes twice a day.

During its service in a country, Mercy Ships focuses on increasing infrastructure not only by providing training for local health care practitioners, but also by training local Africans in some maritime duties.  For example, the Engineering Department has its own special program for transforming lives.  After an interview process, local young men are hired as day-workers to assist in the constant cleaning, painting and watch duties.  They complete a training manual that covers the basics of engine maintenance and cleaning.  They are extremely grateful for the free training that provides a way for them to support themselves after the ship leaves the port. The maritime crew helps create a brighter future for the young men they work with and train.

Amanda Wallace, from California, works for Chevron on tankers.  She volunteered onboard the Africa Mercy for two months, serving as Second Officer.  During her time off, she discovered ways to personally touch lives.  She visited orphanages, where she played games and did crafts with the children.  She visited patients in the Mercy Ships HOPE Center, an off-ship facility where patients recover from surgery or build strength prior to surgery.

One day, Amanda had an opportunity to visit the off-ship Mercy Ships Dental Clinic. For people in developed countries, a visit to the dentist is a common occurrence.  But in West Africa, many people have never been to a dentist, and it can be quite an unnerving experience!  Amanda noticed one particularly nervous man.  To ease his fear, she held his hand while his tooth was extracted.  It was a small act of compassion that made a BIG difference to a fearful dental patient.  Amanda said, “Mercy Ships is pretty well-known throughout the commercial fleet. I was looking for a volunteer opportunity – something that would be positive in my life – where I could use my skills for a bigger picture … to help.”

Captain Tim Tretheway shares that sentiment. He and his family have served with Mercy Ships for 24 years. When asked about his volunteer work onboard the ship, he replied, “This work has made me realize that I don’t have to be a surgeon to have an effect on the world.”

The Africa Mercy is a floating hospital that provides quality health care to some of the world’s most desperate people – bringing hope and healing they never thought possible.  But it could not do so without a hard-working, dedicated maritime crew.

For more information about Mercy Ships, please visit or watch the following video, Mercy in Action.  If you’ve sailed with Mercy Ships, please share your experience on the gCaptain Forum HERE.





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