Saving lives on the Africa Mercy

From Nine To Noon, 10:13 am on 1 December 2017

New Zealand nurse Deborah Adesanya had her life transformed by a five-month stint caring for children recovering from major surgery on the world's largest civilian hospital ship.

The 450-strong crew of The Africa Mercy provided free essential surgery to the people of Benin – one of the poorest countries in the world where even the most basic healthcare is usually inaccessible.

Deborah and her fellow crew members (who come from more than 40 countries) feature in the eight-part documentary series The Surgery Ship.

The experience was transformational, says Deborah, who now nurses at Starship Hospital.

Deborah was studying to be a nurse in New Zealand when she made the decision to go.

“I was at nursing school and not doing my best, I’d failed two papers and wasn’t really sure where to next.

“I came across a sign that said 'Mercy Ships' and that kind of intrigued me so I went home and looked it up. And I don’t know, I guess something just came alive in me. I felt excited again about nursing and the thought of helping others and heading back to Africa, where I was born, to make even a little difference.”   

That hope spurred her on to complete nursing school.

Deborah was born in Nigeria and came to New Zealand when she was 10.

“English was my first language, but I could also speak the language of my parents, Yoruba, and because Benin is right next to Nigeria there’s sometimes cross-over of languages.”

This enabled her to communicate more easily with some of the patients she saw in Benin.

“Even those I couldn’t communicate directly with, regardless of the language barrier you still managed to form some connection.”

The Africa Mercy is the biggest hospital ship in the world, with four operating theatres, four different wards, a dining room, a library, a school and a kitchen.

“There’s room for all the volunteers and it’s massive, it’s like this big village.”

Deborah says she was inspired by the stoicism of the people she met.

“The things you and I would never have to worry about are what people are worrying about. If someone here has a small lump on their face you go to the GP and you get it checked out and dealt with before it’s even an issue.”

Not so in Benin, she says.

“What starts out as a small lump ends up as a massive melon-sized tumour.”

On the ship, she met a boy called Julian whose tumour was especially extreme.

“When they removed it, it weighed over 2kg, nearly half the size of his head.”

“Getting to meet Julian post the tumour removal he was just very vibrant, very happy. Before the tumour was removed he was in a deep depression.”

He never left the house as people were afraid of him and covered his face with a pink scarf, Deborah says.

Julian's story was not untypical.

“These kids have been living with these facial deformities for years, some adults living with facial tumours for 10 or 20 years.”

Another boy Deborah met was terribly burned after falling into a fire. The resulting scars were devastating.

“Because of the way he got burnt, he couldn’t lift his arms from his side and his neck had been fused with his shoulders.”

His mouth was also affected, making it difficult for him to eat and speak.

“I remember the final day of discharge, I went to see him in the discharge tent and his dad was just smiling and saying to us 'You know, he can talk to his mum on the phone now and she can understand him, he can eat, he can raise his hands'. He was so filled with joy.”

This "attitude of gratitude" inspired her, as did the resilience of these people.

“Having a massive tumour in your mouth and to have that faith to keep going, to not give up, I think that’s amazing. They’ve lived with these deformities for years and they didn’t give up.

“How many of us would keep going when things get that hard? When you’re rejected by society?”

Deborah had planned a five-week tour of duty on The Africa Mercy but ended up spending 20 weeks on the ship.

“I just had a knowing in my heart, I needed to stay longer, that there was more work to be done.”

Deborah is amongst the crew of The Africa Mercy featured in the eight-part documentary series The Surgery Ship, which screens on the National Geographic channel from 7:30pm on Friday 1 December