I wanted to share with you some of the patients I have had the pleasure of treating. For some these surgeries have not just changed their lives, it has saved their lives. This is their journey.
About three months before the Africa Mercy arrives at a new destination, our advanced team is already on the ground. They among many things, raise awareness that Mercy Ships is coming by poster distribution, meeting with the Ministry of Health, NGO’s, local churches etc.
Once the ship was moored in Benin we began screening patients. Initially we only screened in Cotonou, but later visited rural villages. The screening in Cotonou went for two weeks, which I have been told were absolute chaos. Security was required to keep the peace as thousands and thousands of patients presented, hopeful to be accepted. Some waited on the street for days.
After the first couple of days, an average of 15 seconds per patient was required for screening. Such little time was needed as most of our programs unfortunately were already full. There are limited spaces for each surgical specialty; plastics, orthopaedics, maxillofacial, general and women’s health. There is such a huge need for medical help in Benin.
Screening is a difficult and emotionally challenging job; possibly the most difficult on the ship. Having to turn patients away because their condition is inoperable, incurable by our surgeons, something we don’t specialise in, or our program for that ailment is already full is gut wrenching. Having to say to someone they can’t have surgery can be a matter of life or death.
Of the several thousand people waiting in line during those two weeks, 762 were given appointments to be seen by the surgeons.
The next appointment with a surgeon depends on when the surgeon for that speciality is on the ship. Our field service does surgeries in blocks.
The patient is seen by the surgeon at some stage during our field service and has the required tests and scans performed to assess suitability for surgery. It is also at this time they have their medical history, medications, observations etc taken. If accepted the patient receives the much wanted appointment card marking the date of their admission to the ship for a free surgery. This little card marks the start of a new life.
In Benin this field service (so far!) we have done 1,504 surgeries, had 326 palliative care encounters, and performed 11,389 dental procedures!
During my two months here we have been doing surgeries for maxillofacial tumours, goitres, cataracts (and two weeks of specifically paediatric cataracts), hernias, neurofibromas and fistulas.
Adiza had been suffering from a goitre for 40 years. Goitres are usually due to a patient being either hyper- or hypothyroid. Adizas goitre was so large it had wrapped around her trachea and was slowly suffocating her. Even walking up the gangway to the boat was a huge challenge, and she had to choose her words very carefully through each laboured breath. The goitre was removed and weighed more than 2kg. Her smile says it all.
Marie-Grace, Jacques and Elodie
Paediatric cataracts was not something I had heard of before volunteering here. On the Africa Mercy, we have been operating on kiddies with cataracts for the past two weeks – they frequently have congenital cataracts. It is not uncommon for all siblings to have the condition. There is an estimated 320,000 children in Sub-Saharan Africa who are blind. Almost all of these are due to preventable causes. Unfortunately not many blind children live past 5 years of age.
27 gorgeous kids received cataract surgery this field service, including siblings Marie-Grace, Jacques and Elodie. They were born blind as their Mum also had congenital cataracts as a child. She received free medical care from Mercy Ships in 2001!
After only a 10 minute operation, these three gorgeous kids were checking out their surroundings for the first time … ever! The kids require general anaesthesia for their operation as they can’t stay still enough. Adult cataract surgery is done under local. They were discharged two days later with eye drops, sunglasses and the cool ‘bug eyes’ to protect their new eyes for a couple of weeks. What a huge change in not only their lives, but also their parents! Imagine having three young blind children…
Today I was invited to the paediatric Celebration of Sight which was held in honour of all the kids who had their sight restored. When we arrived the Mummas hugged us and the kids high fived and gave us kisses. It was so amazing to see them all running around playing. The school aged kids spoke of how happy they were they could read books in the classroom and write.
Encepholeceles are a rare type of birth defect of the neural tube. The neural tube is a narrow channel that folds and closes to form the brain and spinal cord. An encephalocele is a sac-like protrusion of the brain and membranes that cover it through an opening in the skull, because the neural tube has not closed completely during pregnancy. They can occur anywhere on the skull but usually occur either between the eyes or on the back of the head.
Encephaloceles are often due to lack of folic acid in the Mums diet during pregnancy, or genetic components. A complex surgery is performed where the contents of the sac are put back inside the skull. Everyone including Ichaou goes on oral acetazolamide three times per day for at least a month, to reduce CSF production and pressure within the skull. Lumbar punctures are performed if there is any CSF leakage or the patient is irritable, to assess the CSF pressure. The dose of acetazolamide is then adjusted as necessary.
Emmanuela and her Mumma Justina are from Nigeria – which means they speak English! It was such a pleasure being able to communicate with them easily and we formed a lovely bond. Emmanuela had gigantism of her left toes and had two of them amputated. Gigantism is a rare condition that causes abnormal growth in children. It occurs when the pituitary gland makes too much growth hormone.
They were discharged from the ward a couple of weeks ago and were given rehab appointments to attend. We got to see them during their last rehab appointment just before they were discharged from them also! Justina said when they went back to their village everyone was so happy they all sung and danced and praised God.
These past six weeks on the Africa Mercy have been so eye opening. Seeing people around the world living with such poor access to medical treatment and the ailments which result are shocking. The Africa Mercy has provided so much healing for so many patients, but there is still so much more that is needed.