(This is a running email post written by a volunteer nurse serving on the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship that travels the African coast).
August 07, 2014
After three months of wonderful visits to family and a few friends, I returned to the Africa Mercy yesterday. We are currently docked in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. The ship undergoes maintenance and repairs between each field service, and shipyard was in the Canaries this year. After one last repair and some loading of supplies, we plan to sail to Benin around the middle of August. For those of you who are as ignorant of African geography as I am, Benin is a little country located right next to Nigeria, on the underside of the big bulge that constitutes West Africa. Of interest, it is also located about 500 miles away from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the epicenters of Ebola.
I'm sure many of you are following the Ebola outbreak with some interest and concern. It certainly looks scary! That it was spreading didn't surprise me--those countries are so crowded, with poor sanitation, less awareness of infection control measures, and inadequate protective equipment available to health care workers.That a couple of American health workers were infected really caught my attention because I KNOW that they took proper precautions. If they caught it, then...
Some of you may wonder why we're not responding to the crisis by sailing to the epicenter to help in the fight against Ebola. The fact is, we are a surgery unit, not a general hospital, and we are not designed, equipped, or staffed to deal with infectious diseases, or any other health problem, except certain types of surgery.
Some of you have expressed concern for the mission and people of Mercy Ships in the face of Ebola. Mercy Ships recently issued a public announcement saying, in effect,"we're aware, we're watching, everything's cool." Of course, they spent more words than that, but you get the gist. (see attachment if you're interested) Department managers get more of the inside story, and in conversation with one of them today, I learned a few details of what "we're watching" means. It sounds like Mercy Ships has developed detailed plans, with specific trigger points identified and response actions prepared. Of course, I don't know what the trigger points are, but I do know that those in charge are proceeding with all due diligence.
It is a comfort to me to realize that Mercy Ships is an old hand at dealing with in-country crises of various sorts. When we were in Guinea, there was a lot of unrest, and even violence, in the city where we were located. Mercy Ships had detailed plans then, too, of what our response would be if this, or if that, or if the other. What if we had to leave and we had patients on board who couldn't be discharged? Mercy Ships had a plan and had already made all the necessary arrangements, so they could have responded almost instantly if they had needed to. I'm sure that that kind of planning is taking place in the current situation, too.
Mercy Ships has a crew of volunteers from many nations, including quite a few from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. These folks are obviously much more directly impacted by the Ebola crisis than those of us from "safe" countries. They have family and friends who are in harm's way. Some of them may need to go home, but if they do, they can't return to the ship until they've been in quarantine on shore and free of fever for 21 days. (In general, Mercy Ships has a ban on anyone who has traveled through those countries any time recently.) It must be very hard for our African crew to watch this plague envelope their countries and be unable to help.
For the moment, anyway, we are proceeding on schedule to Benin. The plan is still to have the major screening day on September 9. Between now and then, there is a lot of preparation work to be done. Cleaning the hospital after shipyard repairs is underway now, but most restocking and moving stuff will need to wait until we land in Benin. You never know when you'll hit rough seas while sailing, and everything needs to be tied down tight until we arrive.
For now, I am working in the dining room (no eye surgeries happening, of course, so hospital personnel get reassigned to a temporary job for the duration). Each day brings more volunteers back to the ship--our population is growing from a skeleton staff of about 100 during shipyard to probably 300 before sail, and another increase to about 400-450 between the time we land in Benin and the time of the big screening day. Lots of hellos and goodbyes in this time of transition.
So, goodbye for now. I'll keep you updated if there are significant changes in plans, or if something interesting happens.
(Attached Notice: Africa Mercy Public Announcement)
05 August 2014 UPDATE
As its hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, prepares to leave for its ten-month mission to perform life-changing surgeries and train local healthcare professionals in Benin, West Africa, Mercy Ships continues to be acutely aware of the Ebola situation in the region. The organization is taking appropriate steps to protect its volunteers and staff. In April, Mercy Ships redirected its upcoming mission from Guinea to Benin out of caution for the safety of its crew. Benin has no reported cases of Ebola.
The Africa Mercy is the world's largest civilian hospital ship, designed to operate as a surgical specialty hospital. It is not configured to provide the type of treatment required by Ebola patients. In addition to having changed its itinerary, Mercy Ships has also implemented strict travel restrictions to the affected areas and will continue to monitor the situation closely, making programmatic adjustments as needed.
Founder Don Stephens commented, “The well-being of our patients and dedicated crew is our greatest priority. It is fundamental to our continued service to the forgotten poor in Africa. Our prayers go out for the countries impacted by Ebola. These are places and people we know well because we have served them in multiple visits over more than two decades.”
[Click here to learn more about the nurses and doctors on board the Africa Mercy.]