the man who walked for days to get to a hospital

I still can’t quite believe this story, but here it is. Sambany was onboard being treated while I was in Madagascar in February. The strength some people have is incredible.

Thanks for watching!

 

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/123209406″>Sambany</a&gt; from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mercyships”>Mercy Ships</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>]

priscilla: before + after

In the last few years I’ve had the privilege of watching several operations to correct bowed legs. What always astonishes me is that the process is fairly straightforward and the surgery itself doesn’t take that long. Maybe it’s because our awesome ortho-surgeon Dr. Frank just makes it all look easy…but I leave thinking “well, that wasn’t so bad?”

I guess what I’ve realized is that when we get the right people and resources and put them together on a boat ship to treat patients who need help…it’s a pretty remarkable thing. Of course, a lot of hard work (by medical staff, caregivers, translators, therapists, and the patient) went into achieving this before and after, but when I look around I can’t help but notice that, after so many years in the field, the Africa Mercy hospital is a well-oiled machine. They’ve got this bowed leg thing figured out, which is why there are many more photos like these in our future:

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Have a great weekend, everyone.

Photos by Justine Forrest and Katie Keegan for Mercy Ships.

On leaving: why saying goodbye to the Africa Mercy is the hardest

I’ve worked in the field, lived in the field, and I’ve seen poverty up close. I’ve grieved for the mothers I’ve seen lose children, for my unlikely friends who were taken too soon, and for every person who comes to us that must be turned away because we simply can’t treat them. And although living there is hard, leaving there is harder.
 

Since 2012 I’ve lived with one foot in a world that lacks basic healthcare, and with my other foot on a hospital ship, where my neighbors are some of the world’s most talented doctors and nurses. Have I lived in Africa, or just beside it? Because none of this suffering is ever happening to me, it’s happening in front of me – which reminds me of the unfair truth about the time I spend in these countries: I can leave

Yesterday, I left.

My time onboard these last 2 weeks was very different than before. I spent most days in meetings two decks above the hospital – not in my preferred spot, which is playing bedside jenga while the ortho kids put stickers on my face and paint my nails neon yellow. Still, I snuck down to the hospital hallway at night where I could peek through the skinny rectangular windows of the Africa Mercy wards. It was here that I heard our patients singing, saw children dancing, and remembered the impact of medicine again. I was reminded that although my job was happening upstairs in conference rooms and on long-distance phone calls, it’s what’s happening in the narrow ORs and corridors of this ship that I do what I do.

As I write this, I am on a plane to London. I (reluctantly) left Madagascar and its beautiful people and a ship full of incredible patients. I can’t stay any longer because now my focus is to help market Mercy Ships in the West. Though it pains me to go, I leave knowing that we don’t have to be on the ground to be a part of the impact, and that’s exciting.

Sometimes you have to leave when you’re here to stay.

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Nothing and Everything

The other day, I came across some incredible numbers:

In 2014, Mercy Ships performed 2,527 surgeries in Congo.
Restored vision to 995 people.

Repaired 170 cleft lips.
Treated 8,358 dental patients.
Trained 73 Congolese healthcare professionals, including 6 surgeons.
Provided employment for 200+ translators.
Provided free rehabilitation care to 70 pediatric orthopedic patients.
Operated on 60 obstetric fistulas.

They also employed 1 familiar Houstonian and sent her back to Africa.

Ten months ago I was a girl who wrote to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Today I am a girl writing to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

The Africa Mercy was docked in Pointe Noire, Congo until June 2014. Originally, Mercy Ships’ country-next was Guinea – but due to the Ebola outbreak, Conakry was no longer an option. If any of you were reading this blog while we were there in 2012/2013, you might remember the brokenness of Guinea’s healthcare infrastructure. Long before a deadly virus showed up, hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed. And now? I can’t imagine. It may not make headlines anymore, but the impact of Ebola is still heavy in West Africa.

Next, plans were then made to sail to Cotonou, Benin, but again, the uncertainty around Ebola forced us to re-route in the Fall.

So, to make a long story short, tonight I am writing to you from Tamatave, Madagascar, where the ship has been since October. I am now working for Mercy Ships on their digital media team. I’m based in Houston, but happily traveling this month visiting the ship.

Being back on board is wonderful. It’s been a bit like coming home. Except that my house isn’t in the country where I left it, and, unlike last time I was here, now everyone speaks Malagasy. And drinks out of coconuts. And zips around on rickshas. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Somehow, through all of the ups and downs, uncertainty, fear, and fuzzy future – the remarkable crew here seems stronger. While pieces of our hearts are still in West Africa, volunteers onboard the Africa Mercy are already making an incredible impact in Tamatave.

If the stats from Congo are any indication, in Madagascar we have much to be excited for.

Photo Feb 12, 13 01 11

Here’s to many more stories in 2015!

Happy International Nurses Day!

To be a nurse you have to be an all-around remarkable person.

I’ve seen our nurses at work in some of the most challenging scenarios imaginable, they leave me in awe. I’m happy that today, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birthday, we take the time to acknowledge and appreciate nurses around the world.  

I asked a few nurses here what being a nurse means to them. Our fabulous photographer Ruben Plomp put these images together. I’m glad I can share a glimpse of what nursing onboard the Africa Mercy looks like with you.

Mercy Ships relies on more than 700 volunteer nurses over the course of each 10-month field service. Without each and every one of them, we couldn’t do what we do. In fact, I think I’ll go down to the hospital right now and high-five as many as I can find.  

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Photos by Ruben Plomp

Marcel

Next time you have 4 minutes to spare, I’d love to tell you an incredible story about a fashion designer in Congo who once was blind.
(Happy Ending Alert: he isn’t anymore.)

Eyes of the Beholder on Medium.com

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

 

 

The Beauties of Ward B

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There are parties, and then there are parties.

On the Africa Mercy, no one does a party quite like Ward B.

You may remember that I’ve written before about VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) – a childbirth injury sustained in regions where emergency obstetric care is unavailable. A very rough description would be that, often after several days of labor, women develop a hole in their birth canal that leaks urine. In short, these women need C-sections and when they can’t have them the damage leaves them incontinent, if not dead. They almost always lose the child they were carrying from the trauma of the birth. There are approximately 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who live with VVF, according to the WHOTwo million.

When you are incontinent, you smell. When you smell, people avoid you. In several days’ time, these young women go from being expectant mothers to grieving, injured, and outcast. Over and over again I hear from VVF patients that they have been left by their husbands and rejected by their communities. In all my time in Africa, nothing has moved me as much as the plight of a woman with VVF. She has suffered in ways few of us will ever understand. I think these women must be made of God’s strongest fabric.

After obstetric surgery, our VVF patients stay on Ward B for several weeks recovering. Do you know what happens when you place a bunch of women who have suffered for years in solitude together in the setting of a great big sleepover? While they rejoice over the fact that they’ve just won the healthcare lottery and will receive free surgery that will change their lives forever? Can you imagine this? Well, I’ll tell you: it is a non-stop musical hen party. They braid hair, do crafts, and parade in the hallway singing. I walked in a few days ago to find that they had pushed their beds together. Seriously. Like in The Parent Trap. Then they redecorated the entire ward. If we don’t leave soon there will be a sorority house where the hospital used to be.

When these incredible women are ready to be discharged, we throw a hell of a party. We call it a Dress Ceremony. With full hearts and dry skirts, the patients sing and dance and celebrate their re-entry to society and the emotional restoration they have found through the care and counseling of our amazing medical staff. It’s the happy ending after  a long road of suffering that began because they needed a doctor and didn’t have access to one.

This week, we celebrated the journeys of eight patients who no longer suffer with VVF. I’m writing a story about one of these patients named Gisele, so I followed her day from start to finish. Gisele has lived with VVF for more than 20 years. When I saw her yesterday morning, she hugged me and said, “aujord’hui, c’est bon.” Today is good. And  it was. It was so good.

It is my great honor to introduce our debutantes, the Beauties of Ward B. 

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014


Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014; Gisele

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Catherine Clarke Murphy

DRESS CEREMONY; Catherine Clarke Murphy with Giselle in Congo.

Catherine Clarke Murphy with Giselle in Congo.

Catherine Clarke Murphy photographs VVF patients in Congo

Thanks for reading.

Photography by Catherine Murphy
(+ nifty behind the scenes footage by Josh Callow)
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

Winning Aicha

Today I want to tell you a story about a little girl. 

Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Once, when I was looking for Aicha, I found her hiding behind her father. Since the day she arrived on the ward, she had been upset. I thought I could lift her spirits. I assumed cheering up a four-year-old would be easy, but, as I approached, she gripped her father’s arm. She looked terrified. Aicha’s big brown eyes met mine, and they told me something sad – she did not want to be found. 

Aicha was burned in a house fire. Flames had licked the sides of her face, the backs of her arms, her thighs, shoulders, wrists, neck, and hips. Her right ear was missing. Because she went without proper wound treatment, the skin on her elbows, arms, and sides contracted. This caused her skin to regrow in such a way that her inner elbows became stuck to her forearms.

 Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Aicha received surgery onboard the Africa Mercy to release her contractures and graft new skin, but her glassy eyes remained round and wary. This little body had endured a lot in its four years, including heartache. The fire that left her this way had also killed her mother. Underneath Aicha’s wounds was a child scarred by anxiety, grief, and an inconsolable fear.

From her hospital bed in the furthest corner of the ward, Aicha could see everything. Abdom, her father, sat on a stool at her bedside and smiled apologetically to people who sent her into tears just by glancing in their direction. Abdom could not leave Aicha’s side without sending her into hysterics. He was the only comfort she had left. During bandage changes, she called out for her mother.

Aicha was scared of everyone. It seemed like there was no remedy for her fear. She didn’t care for toys, or treats, or hugs. She wasn’t interested in playing games. To approach her with a smile could induce panic. We are professionals when it comes to winning the hearts of even the most stubborn kids, but Aicha was different. Aicha was heartbroken.

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Because Aicha’s recovery took several months, time was on our side. Slowly, she regained her mobility with rehabilitation exercises. Slowly, she became curious about the strange people in blue scrubs who brought her balloons and sat with her father. Sometimes these people in blue sang and danced. Sometimes they gathered in a circle by the door and bowed their heads. From her corner bed, Aicha watched.

When Aicha was well enough to go outside, she liked to sit on the deck in her father’s lap. Maybe it was just the sunshine, but she started to warm to us. Her grip on Abdom’s shirt loosened a little.

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There were days that involved dressing changes and bitter medicine (on those days, we lost some ground), but they were followed by days with little smiles. We took what we could get. Winning over a broken heart means victory comes in shattered pieces.

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Then came patience and love. Over those next few weeks, we loved Aicha until she asked to color. We waited until she smiled at our silly faces. We gave her space. We pretended not to notice when she took a little step away from her father’s side. We played it cool when she explored the ward on a scooter. Each time Aicha left the safety of her corner, there we were. We were safe, too.

Then came the day she fell into our arms. Winning Aicha was worth the wait.

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Today, Abdom no longer carries the burden of being his daughter’s only comfort. When he leaves for work, he knows she is alright in his absence. “You have set me free. You have given me my life back,” Abdom says.

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Now if I go looking for Aicha in the hospital, I know I won’t find her, and that’s okay. It’s not because she’s hiding – Aicha stopped doing that a while ago. It’s because she doesn’t need a hospital anymore. Today, Aicha is at home in Congo – hopeful, healed, and unafraid.

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Photos by Michelle Murrey and Debra Bell, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

Today’s story was made possible by some wonderful volunteers who helped Aicha (and me) along the way. Thanks, Josh Callow, Jasmine Bursey, Erin Williams, Chris Glasgow, and Deb Louden. 

Little boy, big miracle

A version of today’s story originally appeared last week in The Huffington Post.
Click here to read the original.

I’ve seen a lot since I’ve been in Africa, but I don’t think I understood the phrase “at death’s door” until it met a 2-year-old named Emmanoel. A tumor in the back of Emmanoel’s mouth was blocking his airway to the point that he passed out three times a day.

Photo Credit: Ryan Cardoza. Screening Day.

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In the last year and a half, Emmanoel’s parents, Elodie and Maurice, had sought out help for their son wherever they could. At first, doctors in Congo told them that their infant had “just malaria.” But as Emmanoel grew, his breathing worsened. In early 2013, doctors found the culprit: a tumor growing from Emmanoel’s palate was slowly suffocating him. He needed an operation, they said, but it was not one that they could do. Without surgery, they said, Emmanoel would not live to see his third birthday.

 Maurice works in a Congolese shipping port. On a hazy Friday in August, he watched a strange ship pull in that was said to be a surgical hospital. He and Elodie counted the days until Mercy Ships doctors would begin seeing surgical candidates. Shortly after we opened our doors, Emmanoel became one of Mercy Ships first patients in Congo – and not a moment too soon. The relief in his mother’s expression was something I’ll never forget.

 Neither were the results.

In a rather tricky surgery, the tumor in Emmanoel’s mouth was removed. “I don’t know how he survived this long, I really don’t.” Dr. Mark Shrime, Emmanoel’s surgeon, said.

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 The night of his surgery I went to check on Emmanoel. In his adult-size hospital bed, the 2-year-old looked even smaller than usual. On either side of him were lots of blinking and beeping machines. Elodie sat at his bedside like a determined watchdog. Her hair was pushed back and she kept one hand on his leg at all times. She had to have been exhausted; yet she was acutely alert. What is it about mothers that kicks in on long nights like these?

 “See all of these nurses?” I asked Elodie. “He is in very good hands, you should try to get some sleep.” Elodie nodded, but kept her focus on Emmanoel. The translator laughed and shook his head, “No, I don’t think she will do that,” he said. But that was clear enough already; the tenacity of parents with sick children is the same in every language.

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During Emmanoel’s recovery, I watched him become a different child. Now he laughs, gives kisses, and he can finally speak. He’s adorable. In fact, he can say three words in French: ‘mother,’ ‘uncle,’ and, fittingly, ‘tomorrow.’ Emmanoel can’t say ‘father’ yet, but Elodie insisted that Maurice doesn’t mind. “My husband can sleep again,” she said.

Emmanoel turns 3 this month.

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey;

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We still have a lot of work to do here, but I am encouraged when I remember that tonight, somewhere in Congo, Emmanoel and his parents are sleeping soundly because of a hospital ship powered by donations and volunteers. With each patient, Mercy Ships is changing lives in Africa. 

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey; Copyright Mercy Ships 2013

A version of today’s story originally appeared last week in The Huffington Post. Click here for more.

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