“We are extremely grateful for our 25 years' experience in West Africa,” Mercy Ships' President Don Stephens said in an email exchange. “This invitation and field service into Central Africa takes us into a new region … President Denis Sassou N'Guesso of Congo Brazzaville is very keen on partnering with Mercy Ships to improve the health care delivery systems for his people.”
The faith-based organization is known for its humanitarian work all over the world. It focuses on giving medical attention and training to “the world's forgotten poor.”
While the ship was docked in Sierra Leone in 2011, African doctors were trained so they could go from seeing 250 patients per year, to 200 patients per month, said Russ Holmes, director of international procurement, in a phone interview.
“We wouldn't be able to do our work without corporate sponsors,” he said.
The organization gets more than $2 million a year in donations from medical and pharmaceutical corporations, he said, such as a recent fellowship training program for eye care provided by Alcon in Fort Worth.
The government of Congo Brazzaville (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where civil war rages more than 1,000 miles east) is “highly desirous” of the kind of training and capacity building that Mercy Ships is known for, Stephens said.
“For instance, Dr. Keith Thomson — consultant anesthesiologist from the UK, will conduct an education program for national anesthesia providers in May 2013 prior to the Africa Mercy's arrival in August,” he said.
Mercy Ships also was invited by the president to partner with FELBO, a non-governmental organization set up in memory of his daughter. FELBO, which stands for Foundation Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba, will organize and arrange patient transport to the hospital ship, housing for the patients pre- and post-surgery and their return home, Stephens said.
However, it has been our business pattern to return to previous nations served within three to five years also.”
Mercy Ships decides in which country to dock based on a number of factors. More than 50 percent of Congo Brazzaville's residents live on less than $1 a day, and statistics from 2006 report that 108 babies die of every 1,000.
“Many children do not survive until their 5th birthdays due to preventable disease,” Stephens said. “For the poor in developing nations, accessing necessary medical and surgical care is extremely difficult due to their remote location, lack of medical facilities and financial constraints. Conditions that would be treated in the early stages in developed nations, grow to the point of being life threatening. The consequence for many is a lifetime of disability, rejection and sometimes even death.”
Mercy Ships specializes in procedures such as cleft palate repair, cataract removal, orthopedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repair. In 2012 alone, there were 69,631 direct beneficiaries of services.
Dr. Peter Linz spent more than 30 years in the Navy as a cardiologist, one of those years he spent on a hospital ship in Southeast Asia. He retired in 2011, then joined Mercy Ships to volunteer for the work he was accustomed to doing.
“My wife had always known about Mercy Ships, and it was something she wanted to do,” he said. “Humanitarian work is incredibly rewarding.”
Dr. Linz recalled some of the reactions of the patients who had cataracts and tumors removed.
“Unless you actually go there and see the lack of hope and how much of a struggle it is for them to just get through the day, I don't think you can imagine it,” he said. “It's life-changing for them. There's complete joy. It's a real leap of faith for them — many of them have never seen an operating room or been on a ship.”
The cataract patients see the fastest turnaround, he said.
“They go from being completely blind to being able to see 30 minutes later,” he said. “How can you not be touched by that?”