When the Africa Mercy docks at a sub-Saharan port, it brings not only hundreds of professionals to treat the medically forgotten, but hope.
The ship has helped tens of thousands of people in the poorest countries in the world who live with facial deformities, crippling orthopedic problems and untreated complications of birth.
The staff of the ship is made up of volunteers who pay $400 a month for the privilege, and most are American.
Some volunteer for a couple of months, while others have traveled for decades on the ship's missions of mercy.
For 27-year-old nurse and New Orleanian Stephanie Uddo, the journey began in October.
Uddo came aboard the Africa Mercy in Cameroon, a country on the western side of Africa sandwiched between Nigeria on its north, and Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south.
“After being a nurse in New Orleans for four years, I began to do what’s called travel nursing, fulfilling three-month contracts across the U.S., in places like Denver and Los Angeles,” Uddo said recently via a telephone satellite connection from her cabin aboard the ship. “Then I heard about Mercy ships and signed up immediately.
"Some of the medical problems here are gut-wrenching. One of the big issues here is caused by young pregnancies, beginning sometimes at the age of 11 or 12.
"By the time we see these women, they’ve had nine pregnancies, riddled with complications caused by prolonged labor outside of hospitals. In many cases, the babies have died. These women have developed obstetric fistulas, which cause incontinence. ... Their husbands have abandoned them, and the community has turned away from them because of their odor.
"They have become totally isolated. So, seeing a friendly face, who offers help, changes their entire world.”
The inspiration for the faith-based, charitable Mercy Ships came about in 1978 when founder Don Stephens met with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, and discussed making a difference in the world.
Stephens’ dream was to deliver health care to the forgotten poor. Borrowing $900,000, he purchased an old ocean liner and converted it into a floating hospital, with operating rooms, hospital beds, imaging equipment and a laboratory.
Now on its fourth ship, bigger than all of its predecessors combined, the Africa Mercy is 500 feet long, weighs 16,000 tons and has 450 workers, nearly 200 of them medical professionals.
The ship’s international chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Linz, is a former navy cardiologist.
“The Africa Mercy is the largest medical nongovernment organization in the world,” said Linz. “It survives totally on donations from corporations, churches and individuals.
"If you consider that 5 billion people in the world do not have access to safe, affordable, timely surgery, and only 6 percent of the 316 million operations done yearly worldwide are done in low- and middle-income countries, we can make a huge difference," he said.
"In the U.S., life expectancy is 79 or 80. In Sierra Leone, for example, it’s 46. We can greatly improve this statistic by bringing medical and surgical services to these countries, and most importantly by mentoring each country’s own medical professionals.”
Thousands of local people may await the ship's arrival. The ship stays nine months at each port of call, bringing patients on board for surgery.
Ministering medical care to people who don’t speak your language can be challenging. Cameroon, a former French colony, teaches French and Arabic as its primary languages, but there are 250 tribal languages and dialects throughout the small country.
“Imagine having a translator who speaks one of the tribal languages, who then interprets to our translator who speaks French,” said Uddo. “By the time I get the translation of the translation, it’s like playing the game telephone, where you’re not sure what’s meant by the patient."
Uddo's desire to help others is a product of her environment. Her mother, Connie, set up the Beacon of Hope Recovery Center in her flooded Lakeview home after Katrina, and now runs the NOLA Tree Project, planting and maintaining trees around the city while painting and renovating schools and playgrounds.
Uddo was 15 when Katrina hit, and brother Nick was 12. While Connie Uddo lent tools from her garage and advised desperate homeowners, husband Mark, director of food service at Country Day School, fed thousands of people on the street.
"The kids in particular realized how quickly you can lose everything in your life ... your home, school, friends, and community," Connie Uddo said.
Rebuilding was a family affair, but by 2007 the kids had been through the mill, Connie Uddo said.
"I asked them to help me with the delivery of 500 trees, and they complained loudly, asking why they had to do things their friends didn't. I apologized to them, not for asking them to work, but for failing them as parents. I told them that my job wasn't to give them the world on a platter, but to raise them to be givers to the world. I told them that they would eventually see that helping others would enrich them immensely. The lecture hit them."
Said Stephanie Uddo: “I was taught early that helping others is the most important thing you can do with your life. I don’t know what’s next, but I know that in volunteering I get so much more back than I’ve given.”
To donate, or volunteer, go to mercyships.org.