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.

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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!

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

the anatomy of a goodbye hug

On Monday we waved goodbye to Benjamine, a 12-year-old burn patient who has been on board for several months. It was beautifully bittersweet.

Benjamine has been our resident Miss Congeniality. For a while after her surgery she was in an airplane splint, which meant that both arms were stuck out to her sides. Did that hurt? Yes. Did she complain? Nope.

Even though each day was Benjamine vs. Door Frame,  she always had a darling smile on her face. We are going to miss having her around.

I watched as some of the wonderful medical staff who cared for Benjamine said au revoir yesterday. 

These are their hugs.

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

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The End. Thanks for reading.

Today’s photos are by yours truly.
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

For more updates from Africa: @clarkemurphy
To subscribe to My Life Aquatic, enter your email address at the top of the side bar on your right.

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. 

it’s a girl!

The Mercy Ships family is growing 

 It's a GIRL!

In July 2017, the Africa Mercy is going to get a little sister. And by little, I mean a casual 570 foot-long by 95 ft. wide, 37,000-ton bundle of joy.

The new ship will have two hospital decks and it will be able to hold up to 950 people total when in port. 

What do you think we should name the Africa Mercy‘s sister ship? 

Doctors estimate that right now she is approximately the size of a check book, so next time you get yours out, please do think of us. 

To donate to Mercy Ships, click here. ;)

My Funny Valentine

In January 2013 I met a funny lady named Hasanatu in Conakry, Guinea. I quickly realized that she was the batty African grandmother I never knew I’d always wanted. Hasanatu guessed her age was somewhere between 60-65, but she couldn’t be sure. Frankly, she told me, she didn’t see the point in counting. “Years are just years.”

 Hasanatu had been found by our Screening Team on a trip through Guinea’s interior. The tumor on her jaw was enormous. At that point of my time with Mercy Ships, it was one of the biggest I’d ever seen. On the day Hasanatu was supposed to be admitted, she no-showed. Like traveling, communicating in West Africa is never easy. Someone from the ship managed to contact her family. “We put her in a taxi to Conakry two weeks ago,” they said. Hmm, we said. Then where is she?

 Meanwhile, someone familiar with Mercy Ships spotted Hasanatu in town (she was hard to miss). He pointed her in the right direction. Hasanatu finally showed up on the dock to the collective exhale of our Screening Team.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION OF MAXILLO FACIAL PATIENT, interior screening patient. GNC18600_DJALLO_Hasanato. Patient story

The night before her surgery I paid her a visit. “Mama Hasanatu, where exactly have you been?” I said. She smiled like she was considering letting me in on some adventurous secret but then dismissively flipped her hands in the air. “It is too long of a story, I would never finish it.”

 The next evening after her surgery, I remember writing this:

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Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo Facial patient Hasanatu one day post op from surgery. (Patient Story)

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo Facial patient Hasanatu one day post op from surgery

During her recovery, Hasanatu became our resident matriarch. Somewhere along the way I stopped visiting her for the story I was working on – and I visited her just to listen.

Hasanatu told me about the children she had lost to malaria and about her late husband. She told me about her favorite dishes and she desperately tried to teach me Pular, her native language. This strong, spunky, Guinean woman was a thing to behold. She talked so much that I teased our translator that he was going to lose his voice. The story I would later write actually opens with this lede: “You’d better find a translator quick – because Hasanatu has a lot to say.”

 When she had made enough progress, Hasanatu was moved from the hospital to our outpatient treatment center in town. On Valentine’s Day last year I went to see her. When I came in she grabbed my hand, walking me to the far side of the porch to sit down. I distinctly remember being flattered. Everyone’s favorite outspoken grandmother wanted me to sit next to her. She gave me a wreath she’d made for me to wear. I thanked her and roughly explained that in the U.S. it was Valentine’s Day, a day when you celebrate the people in your life that you love. She seemed pleased with her timing and taught me how to say grandmother in Pular.

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Since I left Guinea, Hasanatu has crossed my mind regularly. In our morning Comms meeting Tuesday her name came up. Being the legendary little thing that she is, we spent several minutes lost in stories about her. I laughed especially hard telling about the time that Sia, a Guinean translator and a good friend of mine, found Hasanatu walking down the hospital hallway toward the stairs in her gown and bandages – she was carrying all of her belongings. “Mama H, where are you going?” Sia said. Hasanatu responded that she was homesick and tired of being a hospital patient. She wanted to go home to her village, and if we really loved her like we said we did, we would let her leave. Sia explained that it was because we loved her that she had to stay until she was fully healed. Sia escorted a reluctant Hasanatu back to her ward, where I am sure she complained about the air conditioning. (“We are going to freeze,” she used to say.)

While I hate that this sweet woman was homesick, the image of little Mama H in her hospital gown, head wrap, and suitcase still makes me laugh to tears. If not for Sia, I’m fairly sure that Hasanatu could have negotiated her way past the security guards and down the gangway. Her strong-willed attitude was not to be messed with. Hasanatu was 90 pounds of sass and antics that you couldn’t help but love.

Thanks to that spunky little lady, I began my Tuesday with belly laughs. I walked out of the conference room wondering how Mama H was doing and if she ever thinks about me, her ‘white granddaughter.’ I couldn’t have known then how grateful I would be later for our morning of memories and laughter.

It was a few hours before I saw the email. During that time, I got to work and I had a cup of coffee. I enjoyed that nonspecific happiness that comes with having a good day. I was sitting in a meeting with my manager, Leigh, when I glanced at the email on my phone. A shocked, coincidental, emotion washed over me.

I handed the phone to Leigh because I wasn’t sure how to tell her. Mama Hasanatu passed away Thursday, February 20th at home in her village, the email said. A year after a life-changing surgery, she died from an unrelated illness. Leigh and I were both quiet for a bit,  then she looked up and said the perfect thing like she usually does:

“Hasanatu was healed first, that is what’s important.”

I knew Leigh was right, but I had to go through a series of other emotions before I settled on gratitude. Hasanatu had barely been healed a year. The surgery, recovery, and pain – for what? In a far-away African village she lived for more than three decades with an unbearable tumor because she had no access to healthcare. Then one day a caravan of medical people in Land Rovers came through and offered to change her life. She came to the ship, she had the massive tumor removed, and she recovered. Shouldn’t she at least get ten good years on this side of such an experience? As the storyteller who put Hasanatu’s journey on paper, I assumed that her story was just beginning. A year later, I figured that she’d be leading conga lines, giving out free advice, and eating cassava with whatever teeth she had left. Sure, she was older than our other patients, but with that much spunk I suspected she could outlive me. It didn’t seem fair.

Gratitude eventually came. I don’t know if I would have found it yet if not for the fact that earlier that morning I’d been overwhelmed with gratitude for Hasanatu’s life. The stories my teammates and I shared just before we learned she had died were part of a beautiful coincidence that I don’t think was a coincidence at all.

It is painful to know Mama H is gone, but I think she would agree that the last year of her life was her biggest adventure yet. All of us here who knew Mama H carry with us many more stories that we will tell again and again. My future is filled with reminiscing about that adorable firecracker in a headscarf who called me her granddaughter.

Hasanatu will always be my favorite funny Valentine – and the stories I tell about her will always leave me laughing in the end.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Group photos of the Crew that donated blood to patient Hasanatu - Maxillo Facial patient (Patient Story)

Photos courtesy Deb Bell and Michelle Murrey, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

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.

Their Lives Aquatic

Last week I received an email from a friend that said, “Can you tell us about the crew? What goes on behind the scenes?”

It feels like I baked a cake and realized I forgot the eggs. The crew! My 350 neighbors from 40 different countries whose stories have gone untold here for the last year and a half because, well, I’m not sure. Daily life onboard is consumed with patients and stories and navigating (literally) our wacky lives in Africa. I forgot you might like to be introduced to all the people who make Mercy Ships possible. I don’t blame you, they are pretty groovy.

They will tell you I’ve neglected them due to my Uniform Envy, because they get to wear scrubs (read: pajamas) every day and I don’t. This is probably true. Sometimes I try to watch an early surgery so I have an excuse to wear scrubs. On those days, people say:

“Catherine – You observed in the theater today, eh?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Ya, Dr. Gary’s maxillo-facial mandibularectomy and then Dr. Frank’s bilateral osteotomies.” (It’s important to be wordy with official medical terms in a loud voice for credibility.)
Canadian in Scrubs: “Ya, you mean the tumor and the bowed legs?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Those are their street names, but yes.”
Canadian in Scrubs: “Right. Ok.” His pager goes off. He looks down, frowns. “Sorry, gotta run.”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Oh, ya, ya. Me too. I have a thing I should really – ”

He’s gone.

The other thing about us that I’ve never told you is that we carry pagers. Yep. This is a big boat, people are hard to find. Based on our dial-up-speed-internet and our clunky hospital pagers, it is 1996 on the Africa Mercy.

Anyways, after that email I pulled together this little feature. Somewhere along the way it turned into a superlative thing. But thank you to the kind people mentioned below who have no idea that they are on this blog today. I hope your moms like what I wrote about you.

Most Likely to Have Tom Hanks Play Him in a Movie: Captain Tim Tretheway

20131110-231737.jpgYes we are a hospital, but we are also a ship. Captain Tim is a guy that you look at and think, “This guy. This guy has some pretty awesome stories.” He’s been sailing hospitals to developing nations for more than 20 years. If you think you have a cool job, multiply that times 100 and that’s how cool Captain Tim’s job is. He also has an excellent overhead announcement voice and is an advocate of closed-toed-shoes.

Most Likely to Teach A Patient How to Make a Paper Airplane: Dr. Frank Haydon, Orthopedic Surgeon

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On a recent Friday morning I walked into E Ward and found a surgeon sitting on the floor surrounded by a circle of his patients making paper snowflakes. That’s Dr. Frank, who spends as much time visiting patients in the wards as he does in the theater operating on them.

Most Likely to Instagram a Photo of Her Baby: Ali, Nurse

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Ali met her husband Phil in Liberia in some hilarious scenario involving a flat tire and U.N. soldiers who only spoke Urdu. I forget the specifics. But if you’ve seen the 60 Minutes about Mercy Ships, you might remember when Ali gushed to Scott Pelley that this is “the love boat.” Well, homegirl speaks from experience. Ali and Phil got married and had Zoe, the person I really came here to tell you about –

Most Likely To Be Famous: Zoe

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Zoe’s other superlative title could be ‘Most Humanitarian 1-Year-Old.’ She gets to grow up in Africa while her mom and dad work in the hospital and engineering departments respectively. There is a waitlist to babysit Zoe. Ok that last part wasn’t true but I could totally see it happening.

Most Likely to Thank You for Thanking Him: Dr. Gary Parker, Maxillofacial Surgeon

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No crew feature would be complete without featuring Dr. Gary, who has been onboard for 26 years with his wife, Susan, and their two (awesome) kids. He is the longest serving surgeon and frequently wins impressive humanitarian awards that he will never tell you about. I could write an entire book about how amazingly gifted and humble he is, but humble people don’t really jibe with you when you start showering them with praise and rounds of applause in public arenas. Dr. G also gets the thrill of reviewing my stories that need medical fact checking. Surgeon by day, Editor by night. There’s nothing this man can’t do. That’s our Dr. Gary.

This won’t be the last of the crew features! These people are a pretty interesting bunch.

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What else have I missed that you want to read about? Drop me a line: catherineclarkemurphy(at)gmail(dot)com

Today’s photos courtesy Mercy Ships.

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