When I was on the ship, it was amazing to me to see how many volunteer crew members also volunteered for extra volunteer work!
In 2011, I served in Sierra Leone, and was involved in co-leading a Women’s Prison Ministry. Prison Ministries are part of each Mercy Ships outreach. Every two weeks on a Saturday, we visited a group of women ranging from 27-50 in number. Their ‘crimes’ ranged from unpaid debts, to marijuana sales to murder. Frequently, they waited for a trial longer than the sentence would ever demand. ‘Justice’ depended on who you knew, where you lived and which tribe you were from.
We tried to bring a little joy. We did crafts together, sang, shared stories and served a snack. When we arrived their faces were often long and sad. I was amazed at how bright and cheerful they became by the time we left. One of the most moving things happened when we sang together. The strength of the voices of the women in the prison of Freetown rang within- far after their voices were silent.
What an amazing experience!
One of the saddest inmates was Cia, who was in her 70s. She was asked to care for her son’s 5 year old daughter while he was campaigning for political office. His opponents came, killed the child and set Cia up as the murderer. When she arrived at the prison she was so badly beaten she could hardly walk, and would not talk. Over the weeks that we visited with her, she started to open up, and would even smile upon our arrival. One week we heard that Cia had just been released from prison as part of Sierra Leone’s 50th Anniversary of Independence celebration-along with two other prisoners. All of the prisoners’ names had been submitted to the government, but only three had been chosen.
That same week, we did a craft with the ladies which involved embroidering used towels. We divided up into three groups, and tried to get some dialogue going as we sat and sewed together. I had a wonderful prison guard with my group, who was an excellent translator. I started by sharing my ‘story’ and was surprised when several others opened up as well. We got into some amazing dialogue. They told me about their families and about their lives growing up. Some spoke of their ‘crime’ and of their arrest.
We talked about the release of the three prisoners. The ladies spoke of the joy they felt when the prisoners were freed, but also of the sorrow-when they learned that they themselves had not been chosen.
They spoke about the civil war in Sierra Leone…about the memories of that…about forgiveness…about forgetting. Most of the women had lost family members and land during this bloody conflict. I was blown away when they honestly told me they had forgiven the rebels for their actions, but that they would never forget. Suddenly our time was up – and so was the dialogue.
As the Africa Mercy’s time of service has come to an end in Benin, West Africa…I think with pride and affection of the 1, 200 volunteers that come and go in a service period- and of those that sign up for Volunteering +.
Until next time, Jane
Yikes! Father’s Day is just around the corner and who could forget to honour that one guy who has been there for you every day?
Do another pair of socks, BBQ mitts or chocolates cause your Dad to sigh? Give him something that can really light up his life!
Mercy Ships Canada is building a HOPE Centre – a place of rest and healing for patients after their surgeries in Cameroon (our next country of service). The renovations are well under way-but there are some critical items necessary to the opening of the HOPE Centre. Give a unique gift to honour the best Dad in the world!
With three months left until patients and family members begin to fill the beds of the HOPE Centre, there’s still a lot to do. As you can imagine, it gets really hot in West Africa and 40 air conditioning units are needed to take proper care of patients before and after surgery. 200 meters of electrical wire is also needed to wire in the lights.
Help to power the HOPE Centre, and show your Dad he’s the light of your world this Father’s Day.
$10 could provide 1m of wire
$30 could provide 3m of wire
Do you think your Dad is cool? Tell him so, with a gift of air-conditioning. Provide a climate that helps wounds heal better and faster
$100 could support the purchase of an A/C unit
Give an amount of your own choosing!
With every gift, you have the option to get an eCard emailed to you that you can forward to your Dad!
This is the story of William, a blind father who relied on his four-year-old son to guide and help him. A free 30 minute cataract surgery changed his life.
Today is International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, but what exactly is Obstetric Fistula?
Although it affects millions of women, few Canadians know about it because very few women in Canada are at risk of developing this heartbreaking condition.
Obstetric Fistula, also known as Vesico-vaginal Fistula (VVF) is traumatizing. It is a child birth related injury where a hole develops between the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina. Women who survive days of labor and the death of their baby are left incontinent, which means they have no control over constantly leaking urine and feces. This condition affects millions of women around the world, primarily in poverty stricken countries where there is very limited access to healthcare and an emergency caesarean section
Free surgeries are provided for women on board the Africa Mercy and training is given to local & international health care professionals including surgeons, nurses and traditional birth attendants.
Monica Ciolfi from Qualicum Beach, British Columbia, is a nurse who has volunteered with Mercy Ships during two field services and worked closely with ladies suffering from Fistula. We spoke with her recently about her work and what she knows about Fistula.
When did you first hear about Obstetric Fistula?
I first learned about Obstetric Fistula when I was researching Mercy Ships. many years before I applied. When I read specifically on the type of surgeries performed on the ship, I saw that vesicovaginal fistula repair was one of the major ones. I did not know at this time what this was, so I read up on it a bit more on the internet.
When did you first encounter women suffering from Obstetric Fistula?
In 2015 I spent 3 months aboard the Africa Mercy in Madagascar and was so blessed to have spent 6 weeks caring for women after they had corrective surgery for the their Obstetric Fistulas. In 2016 I returned to the ship and worked solely on the VVF ward for 10 weeks.
Was there one particular woman whose story moved you? Can you tell us about her?
Yes. One young woman was 16 years old and her boyfriend/husband accompanied her on the ship because she was under the age of 18, she had to have a caregiver with her. She had an obstructive labour when she was only 14 years old. Her baby died, as most of them do in these circumstances, and she was left childless and with an obstetric fistula. She also had drop foot on one side, presumably from nerve damage as a result of her prolonged labour. Unlike most women with obstetric fistulas, her husband stayed by her side. Despite all she had been through in her young age, she still smiled as if everything was going to be okay. Because of her resilience, I still remember her story and her sweet face.
Another young woman, who I think was in her mid-twenties also remains one of my most memorable patients. As a result of an obstructive labour, she not only had a vesicovaginal fistula (which left her leaking urine), but also a rectovaginal fistula, which left her leaking feces as well. Years before coming onboard the Africa Mercy, she met a doctor who told her he would give her a colostomy to allow her fistula to heal, and then eventually reverse it later on. She was never able to get her colostomy reversed because she was unable to pay for it. I found it so unethical that a doctor would leave this women with a colostomy, in a country where there are no resources or supplies to give her the quality of life she should have at such a young age. She had surgery on her bowel to fix the previous surgery that had been done before she could be considered for a fistula repair. She remained on the ward for weeks and because very well-known by all the hospital staff.
What sort of emotions were brought up while working with these women?
Pretty much every emotion at some point or another. Sadness, after hearing that their families had abandoned them due to their conditions and that their hope of a family of their own had been taken from them so abruptly. Hope, when women would come to the ship and then be cleared by the screening team to have their surgery. Excitement, when women would have their catheters removed and then void on their own for the first time since before their injuries. Happiness and Joy, when the women would go home with fully functioning bladders. Anxiety, when thinking about the women going home and all the post-operative instructions they needed to follow in order to keep their fistula from re-opening. They weren’t suppose to have sex for a minimum of 3 months after their surgery, and a lot of women were fearful that their partners would not be compliant with this. Some also had long journeys home, sometimes 12 hours or more on a truck, and they were afraid that the driver would not stop if they needed to empty their bladders, which were now up to 50% smaller than before.
Overall it was very emotional taking care of these women, but more so in a positive and fulfilling way. They all touched my heart in a different way.
What do you think is the biggest challenge is for these women?
It’s difficult to just choose one. But I would guess that losing a child that had been carried to term would be the hardest part. I am not a mother, but I hear a lot from friends and co-workers who are mothers and how having a child has changed their lives so significantly, but in the end they never regret having their child and are proud to say that it is the best thing they have ever done. I have never heard of a case where a woman with an obstructive labour leaving them with a fistula, had a baby that survived. For many mothers, I think their motivation to find strength and carry on comes from their children, so I can see the greatest challenge for women with fistulas is to have to face each day without their child, and often times, without their husband or family.
What are some of the differences between women in North America and women in Africa when it comes to childbirth and accessibility to healthcare?
In Africa, many women start doing physical work when they are young. In combination with malnutrition, this can cause stunted growth, leaving the women much smaller in Africa than North American women who are generally well nourished and do not do physical labour from a young age. During birth, a baby has a very difficult time getting through the tiny pelvis of a small women. In North America it does happen, but before the newborn baby is at any significant risk, the specialized doctor (in the hospital) or the midwife (potentially at home or in hospital) will intervene and get the birthing mother to a hospital where she can have a C-section to maintain the safety of the mom and baby.
In Madagascar and many other African countries, accessibility to health care is minimal. Most of the population of Madagascar is rural, and without access to a specialist who can perform a C-section (assuming the family can afford it), the odds of intervening on the labour in due time is unlikely. When we discharged patients after their surgeries, we told them to start saving as soon as they found out they were expecting so that they would have enough money to pay for a C-section, which kind of gives you an idea of how much planning and budgeting healthcare costs in countries such as Madagascar.
What needs to change to decrease the percentage of women who develop Obstetric Fistula?
So much. Mostly infrastructure and accessibility to health care services, and subsidized services for at-risk pregnancies. Preventing women from being in obstructive labour would mean changing their roles in their families/villages and ultimately their culture entirely. Ending malnutrition is always on the agenda in less developed countries. But if all women had access to get a C-section when they needed it, and could also afford it, I believe the incidences of new obstetric fistulas would decrease over time.
In Madagascar alone, their is one obstetric fistula clinic. For the majority of the country, it takes greater than 3 days to travel to it. Their is an estimated 80 000 cases of obstetric fistula in Madagascar, with 2 000 new cases every year.
More than 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are estimated to be living with fistula, and some 50,000 to 100,000 new cases develop annually. Yet fistula is almost entirely preventable. Its persistence is a sign of global inequality and an indication that health systems are failing to protect the health and human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable women and girls. – See more at: http://www.unfpa.org/obstetric-fistula#sthash.535LDJbq.dpuf
A Big thanks to Nurse Monica for sharing with us to help spread awareness around this critical maternal health issue!
For Bob Burlingame, it took a book, a sermon, and of course, a ballgame.This eye surgeon from the USA had always been interested in medical missions, exploring various opportunities in the past. But it was only when he retired from his busy practice in the states that hewas able to start figuring out what was truly next.
Years ago, Bob read a book by Don Stephens called Ships of Mercy, which left a lasting impression. Later on, he heard a sermon on Jonah which gave him a sense that he needed to do something more. But the final deal-sealer was an invitation to a ballgame.
It was from a friend he’d later learn was a Mercy Ships supporter. The other invitee seated next to him also happened to be a Mercy Ships supporter – Don Stephens: “I had a funder on one side and the founder on the other…so I called the next day and signedup!” Once on the Africa Mercy in Benin, Bob immediately got down to business performing pediatric cataract surgeries.
“Our goal is to restore sight in anyone we can,” says Bob, honored and excited to couple his skills with the ship’s resources. “On the Africa Mercy, we have not only first rate equipment and supplies that have been generously donated, but also a supportive infrastructure and people who have intentionally thought out every detail. When we deliver care, we make sure everything is right. That’s the way Mercy Ships works and it’s extremely gratifying as a surgeon to be able to do that.
”Watching patients receive their sight has made a significant impact on Bob. “I saw a little boy I had operated on that morning, sitting on his father’s lap. He was tracing out all the details of his father’s face because he hadn’t seen him in probably four or five years, if ever. And now, he was looking at the man he’d heard all these years, very intrigued with finding out – feeling, looking and seeing his father’s face for the first time.”
Bob has many more stories of how restoring sight also restores hope. “When you hear patients speak ofabout Mercy Ships and how it could give them hope and surgical correction of their problems, their eyeslight up, their hearts light up and their joy speaks….this is a great symbol of hope.”
Right from the start, the odds were stacked against him. Little Samsdine was born with a cleft-palate, and since birth had been suffering almost constantly from malaria. He lives with his mother in a remote village which made accessing treatment and medicines difficult – the future wasn’t looking good. Then his mother heard that the Africa Mercy was docked in Cotonou, Benin, and made the long, difficult journey to the ship with her son. When they arrived at the Africa Mercy, Samsdine was not only sick with a bought of Malaria but was also severely malnourished and in constant pain.
Thanks to volunteers and donors, Samsdine had the support he needed to become healthy enough for surgery. With his cleft lip gone, he will be able to grow up big and strong, happy and healthy!