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!

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

Ravette: Before and After

Back around Thanksgiving I wrote a about Ravette – the little girl with the enormous smile who had surgery to correct her inverted knees. Well, now our little lady is out of her casts and done with her physical therapy. Not only do her knees bend the right way, but she could out-strut us all in a walk-off. Someone get this girl a runway.

Needless to say, Ravette’s before and after photos are orthopedic gold. Take a look:

Ravette

Ta-daaaaaaa!

Are you smiling at your computer screen like a total softie now? 

Ya me too.

 

 Photos 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
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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. 

Happy Birthday Dear Facebook

For Facebook’s 10th birthday this week it featured 10 stories about how the site has connected people around the world. One of them was about us.

It just so happens that Facebook has played a unique role in fundraising for Mercy Ships. In November some friends from FB came to Congo and filmed a piece about Mercy Ships and our partner Sevenly, a clothing company that donates $7 from every sale to charity. 

Anchored

 

So are you ready for a really sweet story? Click here to see how Sevenly, Facebook, and Mercy Ships came together and changed a little boy’s life in Congo.

Thanks for watching! 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/53770/anchored

“We came to Africa for the work, we stayed for the people.”

Tonight on a quiet street in Congo, 16 people sat around a long table on a warm patio. In their group were people from Canada, Australia, Norway, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the U.S. The mosquitoes were biting, but it didn’t rain. 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy;

To humor the Americans on the night before Thanksgiving, everyone went around the table and said what we were thankful for:

Deet.

10 a.m. coffee breaks.

Air conditioning.

Our families who miss us, but love us enough to let us go.

4-Wheel-Drive.

(…and Toyotas with winches.)

The responsibility we’ve been trusted with to do the things we do…and the privilege.

The little moments when we enjoy something that reminds us of home.

The people we live and work with who make us happy.

And a little girl named Ravette.

 

“We came to Africa for the work, we stayed for the people.”

 

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Ravette is a 9-year-old orthopedics patient who always has a smile on her face. Always.

When Ravette was little she suffered from a leg deformity caused by quinine, a drug used to treat malaria. When the medicine was mistakenly injected into her nerve instead of the muscle, it caused her knees to grow in the wrong direction. Ravette is still in casts, but she’s learning to walk again.

This morning Ravette hobbled to my office. To get here from the hospital, you have to walk through a common area we call the café. It’s unusual to have patients walk through this part of the ship, so she quickly snagged everyone’s attention. That’s when the clapping started. Each table she walked past gave a little cheer. I’ve never seen a child with a smile as big as hers was today. 

If she had been at our table tonight, Ravette would have said she was thankful to walk again. Then she would have giggled as she listened to 16 people go around and say what they were thankful for. 

Because they were all thankful for Ravette.

What are you thankful for this year? 

The Vernel Effect

Vernel is too cute to be angry with and now he knows it.

Vernel is a wily 6-year-old patient who is probably up to something that he’ll get away with. Why will he get away with it? Because it’s too hard to stay mad at him. When he looks up at you, with his lovable, mischievous, grin, he mesmerizes you with his sweetness and your only conscious thought is about how darling he is. Were you about to reprimand him? You can’t remember.

I call this The Vernel Effect.

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Vernel’s story began in a fishing village eight hours from Congo’s port city of Pointe Noire. The cleft on the right side of his upper lip revealed his pink gums and front teeth as it stretched up to his nose. Vernel has been bullied for looking different, his dad says. The other children in their village teased him to the point he would come home crying. This baffles me…who could possibly have the heart to make Vernel cry?

I met Vernel when his father brought him to the Africa Mercy for surgery. In an environment where cleft lips are embraced, I watched Vernel quickly come into his own. He never had to worry about being teased here; the staff doted on Vernel from the moment he stepped into the Admissions Tent. We made him balloons, we let him play with the Djembe drums, and we discovered that he is a total clown in front of the camera. On this ship in Africa, Vernel finally found his audience: 350 people who see beyond his deformity. By the time surgeons repaired Vernel’s cleft lip, he’d forgotten he had it.

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But there is one thing you can’t let yourself forget about Vernel: he is a ninja when it comes to tickling.

That mischievous smile on Vernel’s face is there for a reason. First, he will curl up in your arms or give you a hug or a drooly kiss. Then, in accordance with The Vernel Effect, you will let your guard down. And that’s when he’ll strike. Think you’re not ticklish? Think again. Vernel has no mercy – especially if you have recently tickled him. This is a 6-year-old with an appetite for vengeance.

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This is my friend Hope. She didn’t stand a chance.

 

Sadly, Vernel couldn’t stay here forever. I was part of a team that drove him home. Today, Vernel is doing great and, might I add, looking quite handsome. 

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When it was time for Vernel to be discharged, he called his grandmother to tell her he was coming home. “I’m a handsome boy now,” he said. 

  

I loved watching this little boy realize his charm. I know Vernel won’t be the last patient to undergo a transformation here.

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don’t fall for it.

 

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The End.

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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