Dr. Pinson writes about being a volunteer surgeon with the global charity, Mercy Ships. He is past-president of the 2002-03 WSSOMS (Washington State Society of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons) Board of Directors. His professional bio is located at the end of the article.
The Joy of Serving on the Mercy Ship
I retired in 2011.
In 2012, I began researching volunteer opportunities to do surgery in the US or overseas. In my home state of Washington, concerns about malpractice exposure made local volunteering risky. Private malpractice premiums would cost thousands of dollars. Washington’s state coverage for retired dental volunteers “excludes invasive procedures,” which seemed to make it worthless to a surgeon.
Then I researched the Mercy Ships program. Mercy Ships makes an agreement with each country it visits—as a condition of deployment—that no malpractice suits are allowed. That appealed to me.
The Mercy Ships Mission
Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free world-class healthcare services, capacity, and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world. Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than $1 billion, treating more than 2.43 million direct beneficiaries.
Each year 1600 volunteers from more than 40 nations serve on the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship. The ship is 499 feet long and is equipped with 5 operating theaters, an 82-bed recovery ward, CT and ICAT scanners, digital x-ray machine, and a laboratory. Here’s a tour of the ship facilities.
The ship deploys to a country for 9 to 10 months at a time, providing free care, upgrading the medical infrastructure, and training local medical personnel.
The ship deploys to a country for 9 to 10 months at a time, providing free care, upgrading the medical infrastructure, and training local medical personnel. Volunteers pay their own way, including travel to and from the ship as well as room and board. This enables the ship to give free care to patients who otherwise have no hope of treatment due to lack of medical services in their countries.
I didn’t know if my OMFS experience and skills in treating major facial trauma, TMJ surgery, orthognathics surgery, and head and neck infections in local hospitals would fit the type of surgery done on the ship, but I applied and was accepted. In March of 2013 I was assigned to the Africa Mercy docked in Guinea and spent three weeks in surgeries.
The Satisfaction of Volunteering
My time on the ship was very fulfilling. It was humbling to treat patients who otherwise would be likely to die without the ship’s medical intervention. To be able to work with Dr. Gary Parker, the OMFS and Chief Medical Officer of the Africa Mercy, was an amazing experience. He has been with Mercy Ships for over 30 years and is highly skilled in treating facial tumors, cleft lip and palate, and other disorders of the maxillofacial region.
During my stay, I performed independent surgeries within my skill set and also assisted with procedures I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing on my own. Working with the local maxillofacial surgeon—whose hospital had no cautery or suction, iffy anesthesia, and intermittent power outages— gave me great appreciation for his skills and dedication. He was the only OMFS serving a population of 10.2 million people and he trained in Russia.
It was humbling to treat patients who otherwise would be likely to die without the ship’s medical intervention.
We did surgery about 40 hours a week; on weekends, we were able to see some of the surrounding country and attend local church services.
From Guinea to the Congo
I was privileged to return to the Africa Mercy for two weeks in November of 2013 during its deployment to Congo Brazzaville. It was interesting to see the cultural differences between the two countries. I assisted in maxillofacial surgeries and, with an ENT surgeon from Texas, in neck surgeries such as goiter removal. Again, it was interesting to work with the local maxillofacial surgeon. He trained in China—one of only three specialists serving a population of 4.1 million people.
He trained in China—one of only three specialists serving a population of 4.1 million people.
In 2014, I was two weeks away from flying to the Africa Mercy in Benin when Ebola hit West Africa. The ship had to cancel the tour and later deployed to Madagascar. I have not been able to go again due to the ship’s scheduling but would do it in a heartbeat if asked. It was a great experience.
Memorable Patients and Crew
There were memorable opportunities to interact with the patients, the “day crew” from Guinea and Congo, and with the other volunteer crew from 30 different countries.
…he wanted to remember “the surgeon that came from halfway around the world to make me whole.”
I particularly remember one patient who asked to take his picture with me. I had removed a tennis ball sized tumor from his cheek and he wanted to remember “the surgeon that came from halfway around the world to make me whole.” It still chokes me up to recall his gratitude.
It’s Worth It
I highly recommend volunteering for this very worthwhile cause. There are many types volunteer opportunities available and there’s a place for every skill level, from working in the galley or in hospitality to serving as a doctor, teacher, nurse, etc. (Check the website for details.) The opportunities more than double in 2018 as the Atlantic Mercy hospital ship which is now being built goes into service. It is 25% larger than the Africa Mercy and both ships will need volunteers.
I graduated from the University of Oregon Dental School in 1970. I served in the US Navy from 1970 to 1972. I did my Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Residency at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington DC from 1972 to 1975. I am a Diplomate of the ABOMS and of the National Board of Dental Anesthesiology. I practiced the full scope of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at my Anacortes, WA, office from 1975 to 2011. Also in WA, I was on the staff and provided primary ER coverage 24/7 for maxillofacial trauma and life threatening head and neck infections at Island Hospital in Anacortes, Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville, United General Hospital in Sedro Wooley, and Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon. I was Chief of Surgery for Island and Whidbey General Hospitals from 1981 to 1982. I served as President of the WSSOMS (Washington State Society of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons) in 2002–2003. After my first 2013 tour on the Africa Mercy I presented my experiences to OMFS residents at the University of Washington. I was then asked to join the UW staff as Associate Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery where I help train residents and keep my surgical skills current, enabling me to continue service with Mercy Ships.
Written by Dr. Ronald Pinson