I’d like to introduce you to Don Stephens, founder of Mercy Ships.
Back in 1978, Don and his wife Deyon purchased an ocean liner, the Victoria, for scrap value of $1 million. It took them four years to convert the retired ocean liner into the hospital ship MV Anastasis. The 9-deck, 522-foot ship was equipped with three operating rooms, a dental clinic, an x-ray machine, a laboratory and 40 patient beds. Since then, they have outfitted three other ships for the same purpose, with a fourth in the making. And what, you may be wondering, is that purpose?
The purpose is to provide humanitarian aid like free health care, community development projects, community health education, mental health programs, agriculture projects, and palliative care for terminally ill patients. Mercy Ships has operated in more than 57 developing nations and 18 developed nations around the world, with a current focus on the countries of Africa.But just what inspired Don and Deyon to dedicate their entire lives to this project? Don says one major motivator was the work of the international hospital ship SS Hope. Stephens’ research showed that 95 of the 100 largest cities in the world were port cities. Therefore, a hospital ship could deliver healthcare very efficiently to large numbers of people. The birth of Stephens’ disabled son, John Paul, also inspired him to move forward with his vision of a floating hospital. And finally, a visit with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, further deepened his commitment to serving the world’s neediest people.
Now, Don and Deyon are certainly good people, having invested their money and time … their lives, really … into this venture. But, with the limitations of both time and space, there are many other good people in this story. As Don noted in a July interview when asked how he came to found Mercy Ships …
“The real story of Mercy Ships is the thousands of volunteers and supporters who are now a part of this journey. These are the ones at the ‘coal face’ of bringing hope and healing …”
I chose just a couple of those volunteers at random to highlight here.
Emmanuel Essah left his native home in Benin, Africa, and flew all the way to Texas to become a Biomedical Technician—and finished top of his class. Then he joined the Africa Mercy. Today, Emmanuel is a long-term crew member, supporting the hospital and helping with repairs and calibration of the hospital equipment.
After growing up in a family of doctors, Sherif Emil thought he would like to try something different and carve his own path. He completed an undergraduate engineering degree before coming to the realization that he really did want to pursue medicine. “I like the personal aspect, I like the interaction and I like the human aspect of it.” That change in career path would lead him to specializing in pediatric surgical medicine in the United States and Canada and eventually would bring him to Mercy Ships. Dr. Sherif began preparations to visit the ship as a volunteer surgeon. Recently those plans came to fruition and he was able to experience the joy of serving in the operating theatre aboard the Africa Mercy.
Seeing the before and after pictures and the ability of Mercy Ships to meet a basic need touched Heather Morehouse. “I was heartbroken to see what people live with. They don’t have access to help themselves and there is such despair that comes with that.” Heather decided that she needed to be a part of the organization for seven weeks during its 2013-2014 field service in the Republic of Congo. She quickly realized that seven weeks wasn’t long enough. “My time in the Congo changed me; it changed what I wanted in life. I rented out my house, quit my job and came back.”
These are just a few of the people who are dedicating their lives to the betterment of humankind. But, let’s take a look at some of the good work that Mercy Ships has done and is doing.
Aicha was three months old when her parents started noticing there was something wrong with her vision. She wasn’t moving or looking around the same way her two older siblings had at her age. By the time she was starting to crawl, it was obvious that she could hardly see what was around her. Fatmata and her husband, Mohamed, were nervous to trust strangers with their daughter’s eyesight, but they decided to bring Aicha to a Mercy Ships eye screening.When they met with the screening team, it was unsure whether there was hope for Aicha’s eyesight. Having her cataracts from such a young age could mean that her vision had stopped developing — making her permanently blind. But, as they shone a flashlight in the baby’s eyes, all tension broke. A toothy grin spread across Aicha’s face; she grabbed the flashlight closer, her eyes not leaving its beam.
According to Ophthalmic Clinical Technician Larina Brink …
“I knew that the surgery would turn out well because of her being able to follow the light as I moved it around. My heart was filled with joy to be able to offer her a surgery that would open the world up to her.”
The surgery was, indeed, successful, and one week after her surgery, Fatmata and Aicha returned to selling fruit. Now that Aicha can see, she tries to grab hold of every colorful item around her: the orange handed to her; the red cap of a water bottle; her mother’s dangling earrings. There’s joy and excitement in the air, and Aicha’s no longer the recipient of strangers’ jokes. Instead, she’s a little miracle.
It was an ordinary morning when then 10-year-old Sekouba first noticed a tiny bump in his mouth. He showed it to his mother, M’mahawa, who thought it would simply go away on its own. But it didn’t. What began as a button-sized growth inside Sekouba’s mouth, grew as big as a tennis ball. It was a dangerous tumor. Breathing soon became difficult, threatening his life.
Sekouba loved school, but he dropped out. The shame was too much. Even his brothers were embarrassed to be seen with him. No one saw Sekouba for himself anymore. All they saw was the growing tumor that had filled his cheek. Sekouba’s family couldn’t afford the surgical costs needed at a regional hospital. So, a neighbor told them about Mercy Ships.
After being admitted onboard the Africa Mercy, Sekouba received surgery to remove the maxillary mass, followed by several weeks of appointments to closely follow his recovery process. Surgery was a success. The first thing Sekouba said he wanted to do after returning home was to get back in the classroom to continue his studies. Then he shared that he had his eye on a girl who he never stops talking about. “Now, I’m going to be able to marry her one day,” he beamed.
There are many, many more success stories here, and I could have made this post at least 5 times as long as it already is and still not have finished. But, as I am out of both time and space, I encourage you to visit Mercy Ships website, for there is a plethora of heartwarming stories and information. I wish I could share them all. Meanwhile, I would like to give a huge shout-out to Don and Deyon Stephens for having the vision and the motivation to start this wonderful project, and to all the volunteers who give so much to helping people. Earlier this year, Mercy Ships celebrated performing it’s 100,000th free surgery. Thumbs up!!! I leave you with a short video clip of one young patient’s story.