A simple brochure was the spark that inspired a teenager to pursue a dream that would take her on an adventure like no other.
Standing strong in the waters of distant countries is a tall white ship with blue trims called the Africa Mercy. This ship is a light on the ocean that carries a crew of very precious cargo – a team of dedicated volunteers who have given up their time to bring life and hope in the form of free medical treatment to remote areas of the world.
It all began in the heart of a teenager. Whilst visiting the Bahamas with a youth group, a devastating hurricane swept through the area claiming many lives and leaving many people injured. Mercy Ships founder, Don Stephens, witnessed first hand the lack of medical treatment and supplies for those suffering from its effects. At the cries of the people, Don was challenged to do something about it.
After years of planning, 1978 saw the beginning of the first Mercy Ship to be transformed from a cruise liner: the Anastasis. As volunteers filled the ship, this hospital on water allowed medical help to be taken to regions in desperate need. It was the beginning of a new era of hope.
38 years later, Mercy Ships has provided life saving medical help to over 2.5 million people across the globe in the endeavour of reaching the 70% of the world’s population who have no access to essential surgery.
It was seeing the difference these people made in the lives of others that spurred people like Deb Louden and her sister Sarah, to join the movement in helping to bring a hope and future to those less fortunate.
After completing a bachelor of nursing and two years experience, Deb and Sarah left their hometown of Toowoomba, their friends and family, to board the Africa Mercy ship on a six month adventure. What they didn’t realise, however, was how much their hearts would be changed forever, and for Deb, six months quickly turned into more than six years.
“Loving on the people of Africa has changed me beyond anything I could imagine,” says Deb.
Arriving together, Deb and her sister settled in, sharing a bunk and living space, which Deb says made the transition onto the ship fairly smooth.
As a nurse, Deb cared for patients before and after specialised maxillofacial operations, which consist of the removal of tumours, cleft lips and facial reconstruction. Highly regarded for her skills in this field, Deb has been honoured with the task of writing a care and education manual which the ship will continue to use in her absence. She has shared in the joy that many patients have received from having facial disfigurements removed and the smiles say it all.
Recently returning from a second stint of over five years working with Mercy Ships, Deb’s story is one of longing. Longing to return to a people who, despite extreme poverty, are full of joy and she is grateful to have been a part of enabling many people to physically smile again.
Deb has fallen in love with the communities of Africa, their people and the community shared amongst the Mercy Ships staff. With all volunteers paying their own way in order to bring treatment to more of those in need, there is a genuineness and love that is shared with each other and with the people of Africa.
Lives are being transformed, not only for the patients, but also for the staff. Time and time again, they are witnesses to situations of hopelessness that, with the gift of surgery, are being transformed to a future, hope and life.
“Many of the patients would die without life-saving surgery,” says Deb. “For example, many patients come in with tumours, and although the tumours are benign, they would continue to grow until the patient eventually suffocates.”
One particular patient Deb remembers fondly was 18year old Grace. Grace had a tumour the size of a football growing from her jaw. It was grown from the cells used to form enamel on teeth and would continue to grow until eventually blocking airways. The medical team on the Africa Mercy were able to successfully remove the tumour, and the results have not only transformed her appearance, but have given a very grateful young lady, the future she otherwise would have missed out on.
“It’s so rewarding seeing the joy on the patients’ faces when they see themselves in the mirror after the operations,” says Deb. “A year and a half later, we saw Grace again and she was doing really well. It was really lovely to see.”
Deb has recently returned home to reunite with family and friends and live a normal life for a while, although it is not such an easy transition.
“It is good to be home and catch up with friends and family,” says Deb, “but at the same time it has its challenges. Living in Australia is very different to living on the ship. We have so much in comparison with places like Madagascar where the average wage is $1/day.”
Being able to help people using skills greatly needed in the medical field has been a rewarding and purposeful gift for Deb. She intends to return to the ship at some stage in the future, and speaking with Deb, I could see that there is a part of her heart that never left.
“It’s amazing, not just the hospital on the ship and working there as a nurse, but also the community that you live with and meeting people from all over the world. It’s definitely a big adventure. I obviously would recommend it to anyone brave enough to want to go.”
With 16 offices around the world, we are blessed to have the Australian office right here on our doorstep in Caloundra. If you would like to learn more about the amazing work Mercy Ships does, donating, or how to volunteer, go to: www.mercyships.org.au.
First published for the Good Life Magazine, Autumn 2017 edition