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Mercy Ships deliver healthcare services to developing countries

Seniors from all over the country are getting on board – literally – to help bring healthcare services to those without access to them in the developing world. Mercy Ships is an international, faith-based organisation that uses volunteers aboard hospital ships to deliver a variety of skills to 70 counties around the world. It was founded in 1978 and has been operating ever since.
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Seniors from all over the country are getting on board - literally - to help bring healthcare services to those without access to them in the developing world.

Mercy Ships is an international, faith-based organisation that uses volunteers aboard hospital ships to deliver a variety of skills to 70 counties around the world. It was founded in 1978 and has been operating ever since.

According to JoJo Beattie, the group's Canadian Public Relations and Communications Coordinator, each year Mercy Ships accommodate more than 1,600 volunteers from 40 countries. Those volunteers - who are all responsible for paying their own way - include surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, engineers and housekeepers.

"Some come for two weeks, others for as long as six months or longer," Beattie explained. "Many of the positions are medical-related, but we have positions for everyone, so it's popular among retirees."

Indeed, after the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada boasts the largest number of Mercy Ships' volunteers in the world.

"We have lots of retired people because they have the time and the expertise," Beattie explained.

Peggy Sherwood, an operating room nurse who was in the military for many years, said she first heard about Mercy Ships years ago when the charity set up a booth at a nurses' conference she attended.

"I took a pamphlet but put it on the back burner for a few years," she explained. "Then after I'd served in Afghanistan, I started to think more seriously about it."

So last April Sherwood packed up for two weeks and flew to a Mercy Ship stationed at Pointe-Noire, the second largest city in the Republic of the Congo.

Sherwood lived and worked on the ship for two weeks, paying all of her own expenses along the way.

"I didn't have time to fundraise, and I'm still working so I couldn't stay any longer than two weeks," she said.

Patients go through a screening process before being brought to one of several operating theatres on board the Mercy Ship. With volunteers coming and going, the core team of health care professionals is constantly changing.

"As a result, you make friends quickly, but you have to say goodbye quickly too," Sherwood said.

She added the surgeries performed there are generally quite complicated.

"We get some huge facial tumours," she said. "They usually start as a dental issue which in this country would be dealt with very quickly early on."

Cleft palates are also a common complaint, though generally relatively easy to fix.

"We saw a terrible one," Sherwood said. "A young man of about 16 or 17, and it looked as though he had likely been taken to a tailor to have it stitched up as a baby. It was atrocious."

Another common ailment among mothers is an obstetric fistula - a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder caused by prolonged obstructed labour which leaves the woman incontinent.

"They are leaking all the time and smell bad so they end up being ostracized by their communities," explained Sherwood, adding their husbands usually abandon them as a result. "Often babies are born to 13-year-olds who then spend the rest of their lives being shunned and ridiculed."

After surgery is performed on the ship to correct the problem, the women often take part in a huge ceremony to celebrate their recovery from such a humiliating condition.

Mercy Ships is a faith-based organization, but volunteers can be Catholic, Jewish, Mormon or virtually any religion at all.

"We pray before every surgery, the idea being that there is divine intervention," said Sherwood, adding she'd definitely volunteer again though the experience was expensive and ate up a fair portion of her vacation time.

She also struggled with being on the ship for so much of the time, restricted by a curfew, and having to sleep in a small cabin with five other women.

"You miss the freedom because it's like living in a cocoon," she said.

Beattie said the organization is trying to increase its presence in Alberta, and is actively reaching out to seniors in the community to either help support the group financially, or to volunteer on the ship.

Businesses can get involved too. Starbucks provides all the coffee on the ships with volunteers manning the coffee bar.

The current ship, the Africa Mercy, has just recently arrived in Tamatave, Madagascar.

Preparing to make the journey to the ship where they will spend two weeks, are Ken and Deanna Siemens. Ken is a Medicine Hat dentist and his wife, a former nurse, is his assistant. Their son Kyle is already on the ship, working as a media liaison coordinator.

Deanna said she's wanted to spend time on the ship for decades.

"It's an amazing project," she said. "My husband is five years away from retirement so we want to try it and if we love it, we'll do it every year after he retires."