Dr Nerida Butcher never imagined she would become a floating medic.
She had heard of the Mercy Ships while in medical school but it seemed a distant dream; “a magical far-off utopian place of medical work,” as she put it.
Then, on the final day of medical school, she heard Mercy Ships founder Don Stephens speak at her Newcastle medical school. It was an epiphany for the young, idealistic doctor. “I was basically in tears the whole presentation,” she says. “I knew I had to get on that ship.”
Butcher is part of an international armada of over 400 medical professionals from over 40 countries who have volunteered to serve on board the Africa Mercy – one of a flotilla of unique floating hospitals that offer life-saving surgery for the poorest of the world’s poor.
- The Surgery Ship airs at 9:40pm on Tuesday November 27 on SBS.
On board these aquatic hospitals, surgeons tackle everything from massive facial tumours and birth defects to childbirth injuries. Miracles are routinely performed. Massive tumours weighing five grapefruits are removed, restoring normality to grotesquely deformed faces. Severely bowed legs are straightened. People see again, walk normally for the first time, are able to return to work, school, raise families and lead rich, full lives.
Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships have worked in more than 70 countries and treated more than 2.56 million patients. Vitally, they also train local surgeons and healthcare professionals.
For Butcher, whom we follow in SBS’s new series The Surgery Ship, it is an eye-opening – and lifechanging – experience, not least in revealing the scale of the medical crisis facing the world’s poorest people.
In episode one, we see her watching, stunned, from the ship as thousands of desperate patients press against steel gates at a dock in Benin, West Africa, pleading for help. A little boy, Francois, is hoisted over the gate; Butcher, miraculously, catches him.
It is the start of a dramatic journey for both doctor and child, who is ostracised in his village as a result of massive tumour that some believe is caused by evil spirits.
Like Butcher, the other medics and health professionals onboard are drawn to volunteer as part of a wider search for meaning in their work and life.
South African plastic surgeon Dr Tertius Venter was working in private practice in East London, on the east coast of South Africa, when Mercy Ship M/V Anastasia docked at his port in 2000.
Despite a fulfilling professional and personal life, Venter felt something was missing: “I felt a lack and an urge to reach out to I’m not sure what.”
The ship’s arrival prompted a radical life shift. Venter volunteered, and has since dedicated his life to providing plastic and reconstructive surgery to the poor of west Africa. Initially he funded his volunteer work by performing cosmetic surgery in developed nations for up to 90 days a year but since 2013, has become a full-time volunteer
American orthopaedic surgeon Dr Frank Haydon was also motivated by a desire for change as well as strong spiritual and philanthropic impulses. Like Venter, he became disenchanted with medicine as practised in the West, and left full-time practice in 2005, volunteering for MSF in earthquake relief before his wife Kathleen, an operating room nurse, encouraged him to explore the Mercy Ship so they could work together.
His first experience was in Benin, West Africa in 2009 and was “an incredible experience.” Since then, Haydon has performed over 650 corrective surgeries onboard.
For Singaporean-Australian nurse Mel Toh, volunteering on the ship was also a leap of faith after seven years as a paediatric nurse at Mater Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. After finishing her professional diploma in tropical disease in London, she embarked on her first hospital ship tour in 2013 in Congo, Brazaville.
All these health professionals would go on to experience a crash course in what Haydon calls “unimaginable pathology and poverty” rarely, if ever, seen in western medicine.
Venter’s patients included burns victim Rachidi, a quiet, shy teenager who suffered a severe contracture of his leg as a result of farm-related burn injury. In surgery, Venter released the contracture to allow him to place the whole sole of his foot on the ground, and to walk normally again.
His operation on Elie,10, afflicted with an abnormal growth of his foot, allowed the child to finally be able to wear shoes, albeit customised ones; while his surgery on child burn victims Ruth and Marina, both five (Africa has the highest rate of paediatric burn injuries worldwide) saw them regain use of their arms.
Frank Haydon, meanwhile, took only 30 minutes to straighten the right and left legs of Faith, 5, born with bilateral bowed legs, allowing her to take her first steps on straight legs.
But sometimes, Butcher says, miracles could not be worked.
“One boy who is etched into my soul forever was a nine-year-old boy who had an ulcerating tumour that was basically suffocating him. I just sat with him and his grandmother while they processed the news that nothing could be done - the tumour was wrapped around the major artery supplying his brain.”
These health professionals experience a crash course in 'unimaginable pathology and poverty'.
All say their Mercy Ship stint offered one of the most profound and soul-changing experiences of their lives. Looking back, what did they learn?
For Venter, it was the profound realisation of how much simple luck shapes our destinies. “The only difference between me and these poorest of the poor that shared the same planet as I, was where we were born.” For Butcher, it opened a window into our shared humanity. “Everyone is of indescribable worth,” she says simply.
Butcher is currently juggling new motherhood with study. “I started out as a surgical trainee. However, through my experiences working in West Africa I became really drawn to paediatrics and global health. There is such a powerful interplay between politics, vulnerability and health and I’d like to work in this space.”
Since 2006, Venter has served as a fulltime volunteer plastic surgeon with three NGOs, spending most of the year with Mercy Ships.
Frank Haydon and his wife Kathleen, meanwhile, continued working for nine years on orthopaedic outreaches on Mercy Ships, while Mel Toh is currently deployed in Madagascar as a program associate with the NGO Operation Fistula.
And how are their patients? Thriving, most of them, like Rachidi, Venter’s burns patient, who was able to get a job and support his parents. Julien, the critically ill facial tumour patient from episode one, recently married and is no longer ostracised by his community.
“Mercy Ships was my gateway to a world I wanted to know,” says Toh. “It opened avenues to the souls of forgotten communities.”
The Surgery Ship airs at 9:40pm on Tuesday November 27 on SBS.