Thursday, 28 February 2008


Goodbyes are never easy. But it is something one must get used to serving on the M/V Africa Mercy. This Friday (tomorrow) the first of my good friends here on the ship leaves to go home. Tom Drinkwater, from Canada, has been with the ship for one year. He has served with distinction in the Deck department, as a Waterman and general Deckhand. We have had some good times over the past four months – walking to Carrefour (a large store like Pick 'n Pay or Wallmart) in Tenerife and getting hopelessly lost on the way – only to discover that I had had a map from the start – or cycling to the beach at San Andres. We've had some deep conversations. He's a good guy. And I will miss him. And his wonderful Canadian sense of humour. I guess that's the one thing that is so difficult serving on the Mercy Ship. Friends come and go. People who you may never see again. Of course, with modern communications like MSN or Facebook, it is relatively easy to stay in touch. But saying goodbye is never easy. The photo above shows me, Chad Meyers, and Tom.

It was fitting that Tom and Chad, another one of my close friends here, put on a “Hoser Comedy Night” last night. It was a talent show and there were various skits that were performed. It was so good to laugh and enjoy the diverse talents of our wonderful crew. Tom has been involved in all three of the previous comedy nights on the ship. So it was a fitting farewell to him.

My good friend Marius Moe and myself adopted a little boy on the Ward this past week. Crew members are encouraged to adopt a patient for the duration of their stay. Little Roger Toe, three years old, was only staying for a week, but it was good to visit him. He had had some repairs made to his cleft lip and palate. Of course, working Reception can be a little debilitating, but I was thankful that Marius was able to visit when I couldn't get away from work. Roger left yesterday, and so Marius and I went down to visit him on the Ward. He was so full of energy – it was so awesome. We were kicking and throwing a balloon around the corridor, and it was just so special to see the joy and love in this little child's eyes. It reminds me of another Child who came many years ago and showed so much love to the entire world.

Otherwise since the screening last Monday things have been uneventful here on the Africa Mercy. I have been working quite hard. I worked three night (23h00 to 07h00) shifts in a row, had a day off, and then worked four afternoon (15h00 to 23h00) shifts in a row. I am putting in a lot of hours in as I am going on vacation this coming Monday. I'm really excited to go home and see my family and friends... and my dog Scruffy! I will only be away from the ship for nine days, but it will be good to have a break. And see my beautiful home town of Cape Town, South Africa. As well as that breathtaking mountain. I guess it's true what they say that you never really know what you've got until it's gone. I love this ship. It has become my home. But I miss Table Mountain, my family, friends, Scruffy. It will be good to recharge my batteries, cycle the Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour, and return to the ship refreshed and ready for the next four (or possibly longer) months.

When I leave the ship on Monday it will prepare me in some small way for my eventual departure later this year. In a sense I will be returning to Cape Town now, my home. But strange as it may seem, when I leave Cape Town a few days later, I know that I will be returning home again – to the M/V Africa Mercy, also my home. And I will be returning to the wonderful community that loves God and makes up the crew on this the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Liberia - Mercy Ships Screening 2008...

It was still dark when 14 vehicles, packed full of doctors, nurses, servers, escorts, and other volunteers, left the M/V Africa Mercy and travelled in convoy to the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia, Liberia. The time had come for the 2008 Liberian Screening.

As the vehicles pulled up to the stadium, hundreds of people were lining up in an orderly queue, awaiting their chance to experience some hope and healing in their lives. The United Nations, along with the Security Team from the ship, led by Ship Security Officer Jan Tuinier, maintained control at the stadium. It was largely thanks to their efforts that the environment was so friendly and happy. But it was also the people in the crowd who created such a calm and jovial atmosphere. As Purser Rob Cairncross said when asked about his impressions of the day, “It's been very orderly. [They've] been a very good crowd, and there were at least 200 here first thing this morning when we got here about five o'clock. There haven't been that many cleft lips and large tumours as I expected to see, but certainly a lot of people here needing help of one kind or another. But they've certainly been a well behaved bunch.” People were very patient, knowing that they would be seen by a Mercy Ships doctor or nurse. There was a sense of expectation and hope in people's eyes.

And as patients were accepted through the stadium gates, truckload upon truckload of new people arrived. The line seemingly never ended. By 8am the number of people outside the gates had swollen to over 1500. Some of these people, like 74 year old Alfred Ztelue, had undergone many obstacles just to make it to the screening. Alfred, who left home at 5h30am, used a hand-pedalled bike to get to the stadium. His left leg had been amputated after a rocket exploded under him back in 1991. He heard about Mercy Ships on his little radio. And so he came. This is one of many stories of courage and perseverance.

Another such story is that of Joe Davis, 28 years of age, from Monrovia. Fifteen years ago, during the civil war, a rocket hit his house. The house collapsed, killing all but him. He was the only survivor. His right arm was broken and never properly healed. And so he came to seek help from Mercy Ships. The joy in his face was evident, as he talked to the Mercy Ships volunteers, and thanked them for what they are doing for Liberia. But his story is just one of many that truly outlines the horror and atrocity of war.

Some patients had travelled many miles to be seen by a Mercy Ships doctor, and at great personal expense. Richie Tokbah, with a shrivelled hand, took one week to get to the screening from Bong County. Other people spent over US $20 to get to the stadium. People came from as far afield as neighbouring Sierra Leone. As one patient said, of Mercy Ships being back in Liberia, “[We're] very happy. They help.” Little Musa Gataweh, 8 years old, from Caldwell, had travelled with his mother, Dehnee Gataweh. They left home at 14h00 the previous day and had slept overnight outside the stadium. Musa had severe facial burns, caused by battery acid that had leaked down on him when he was playing under a car.

And while the people continued to wait patiently, Mercy Ships volunteers entertained the patients with lively music. There really was a party atmosphere at the stadium, as the crowds sung together beautiful songs of praise. And while they sung, children coloured in pictures and played skipping games in the shade of the stadium. Crew members also kept the children entertained by making balloon animals. Servers handed out water to the thirsty, while some local entrepreneurs sold bananas and doughnuts to the crowds. And while all this was happening, patients were being seen and screened by the highly trained medical team.

The screening focused on three primary areas: maxillo-facial (including tumour removal and repair of cleft palate), plastics (such as burn treatment), and orthopaedic (consisting of club feet and other mobility ailments). That being said, many people had to be turned away from the gates. This is never an easy situation. It is so very difficult to say no. As Don Stephens, founder of Mercy Ships, said, while addressing those whom they could not help, “It's painful for us [...] Please don't think it's you. It is not a curse.” Indeed, in West Africa superstition is one of the main causes of shame and exile amongst the afflicted. Some hold to the belief that a disease such as goitre, for example, is the outward manifestation of an inner demon. Mercy Ships also aims to break down these preconceived ideas and stereotypes by showing genuine love in action, and bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor. Some also had to be turned away, but not because they could not be helped. Over 500 people were referred to the eye clinics happening in various locations over the following weeks.

Don and Deyon Stephens also talked warmly with the patients, shared a joke or two, and made them smile. It is fitting that the founder and co-founder of Mercy Ships have come to Liberia this month. It was thirty years ago, February 1978, that the dream of Mercy Ships began. But as Don says, “It's not about the thirty years that have passed. It's about the thirty years that are ahead.” Don went into the stadium and followed patients as they went from one station to the next, showing genuine interest and compassion. A patient first has to pass through the Registration and Patient History tables, and then on to the Surgery Scheduling and Physical station. Most of these stations determine whether or not a patient is fit to undergo surgery. From the Physical station, the patient is escorted to the Pharmacy and Lab station, where blood is drawn to test for HIV/Aids and other disorders. Some of this analysis is done on-board the Africa Mercy. An appointment date is set and the patient then has his or her photograph taken by the Communication department. There is also a prayer station, where crew members can pray for patients – and each other. It was quite a lengthy process, but what was so impressive was the dedication and professionalism of the Mercy Ships crew. All of those who were accepted through the gate had been seen by the time the day had ended.

One of the patients who was accepted for an appointment on-board the M/V Africa Mercy, Solomon Gardea, was overwhelmed. He was so happy that he was at a complete loss for words. All he could do was simply smile, the expression on his face a token of his gratitude. And this is enough, just knowing that Mercy Ships are bringing hope and healing to the people of Liberia. And not only at this first 2008 screening, but also through providing access to clean water, sanitation, education, construction and development, and the many umbrella ministries that make up the vision of Mercy Ships. Hope and healing. That's what it's all about.
Photo above by Esther Biney.

© 2008 Murray Tristan Crawford

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

HCS Open House...

Over the past few days our hospital has been getting back into the swing of things, as the wards and operating theatres are prepared for an influx of patients. Late on Friday evening we had a group of thirty new crew members arrive - all on the same flight - and perhaps 90% of these were ward nurses. It was a very late night for Reception. I only got to bed at a little before 02h00. But it was great to see the enthusiasm of these new nurses.

I actually found myself in need of medical attention on Sunday afternoon. I was meant to go to CC Beach with a group of Mercy Shippers, but I cut my pinkie finger ten minutes before they left.

It was silly, really. I thought it would be fun to take some tennis balls (for playing beach cricket, as any proud South African does when on the beach), and so was in the process of opening the tin of brand-new tennis balls, when I sliced my finger. It was a plastic bottle, but had a metal top like a sardine tin. And the metal was sharp. I panicked and paged the Duty Nurse (the blood was flowing) and went to the Crew Clinic. The blood only eased up after twenty minutes. And while she was dressing the cut I suddenly felt light-headed and faint. So I sat down for a while, with my head between my knees. I hadn't cut myself for a long time, and so it was probably the shock. I was also trembling. When I eventually returned to my cabin (having missed my trip to the beach) there were drops of blood in the bathroom, on my desk, and on the wall. So much blood from so small a cut.

But it highlighted to me the importance of health care, and it was somewhat fitting that Monday evening saw the HCS (Health Care Services) Open House. The Hospital on Deck 3 was open to all crew members. It was really interesting to be able to walk through the wards and operating theatres and to see what our ward nurses and doctors do. They are such a blessing to so many people. At each theatre and ward there were various activities with which one could get involved, such as dressing up as surgeons and patients (and having one's photo taken), learning how to suture, or even having an ultrasound done! In fact, one could dress up as a ward nurse and experience the pressures of their job. As I entered this ward, I commented to Liz, one of my friends, "Well, I'm breaking stereotypes being the only guy in Reception. Might as well do it in nursing as well!" One could also sign up to adopt a patient on the ward. Crew members are encouraged to do this, as it allows one an opportunity to make friends with - and bring joy to - a sick child or a crippled man. There were also sign-up sheets for blood donation. The M/V Africa Mercy has nearly 400 crew, and thus crew members are an excellent source of fresh, healthy blood. One could also learn CPR - 30 compressions to 2 breaths, at a rate of 100 compressions a minute. It was certainly an eye-opener to see all the hardwork that HCS do.

Throughout the whole HCS Open House it was great to see how professional and passionate the Health Care Services staff are, and how well-equipped the M/V Africa Mercy hospital is. We are truly blessed.

God's Provision...

My first week back in Monrovia has been really amazing. I've been awed by the power of God in my life. He is so so good! God has given me the opportunity to return to Cape Town to do the Argus, and to also have a bit of a break. I leave Monrovia on the 3rd of March and return to the ship on the 12th of March. For those of you reading this not knowing what the Argus is, let me enlighten you. The Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour is the world's largest timed cycling event. It sees over 35,000 cyclists take in a 108 kilometre route around the Cape Peninsula, including some of Africa's most scenic roads. And I have been cycling this tour since I was seven. I haven't missed a ride.

I joined the Mercy Ship knowing almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would miss the Argus - and that was fine with me. I had given up my dream to follow God. And now, it seems, God is blessing me beyond my wildest dreams! Not only by the amazing time I'm having here, but also with this opportunity to return home, see family and friends, and drum up more support for Liberia and for Mercy Ships.

The Argus for me was always about competition, beating my best time, notching up one more tour towards my goal of 21 consecutive rides. Therefore, a huge amount of pride was involved. Ugly pride. My cycling got to the point where it defined me. I was Murray the Cyclist. It was what I was good at. Now, none of that matters. Serving with Mercy Ships has given me a greater perspective. I'm going to ride the Argus socially, near the back, with friends and family, and will have a lot of fun. But what I really want to do is ride it for the people of Liberia. And for Mercy Ships.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Arrival in Monrovia, Liberia - 5th February 2008...

After a five and a half day voyage from Tenerife, the M/V Africa Mercy arrived safely in Monrovia, Liberia, yesterday morning. It was a beautiful voyage. Calm seas and good company made for a wonderful experience. In fact, the seas were so calm at times that you would have thought we were moored to a dock. Seriously. At other times the ship did roll a bit, but it was nothing too hectic. It just made one rather sleepy, as if one was a child being rocked to sleep in a crib. But once again no actual seasickness affected me.

During the trip down from Tenerife I did a couple of Piracy Watches up on Deck 8 aft, and those were uneventful. It is good to get involved in protecting the ship. After all, this is my home. And it is a privilege to be able to help the Officers and Deck Hands and to really take ownership in this vessel. I also spent quite a bit of time up on the Bridge during the 00h00 to 04h00 watch, with Second Officer Jan Tuinier and the lookouts. It is so interesting to be up there and see how things function. The Bridge is completely blacked out at night, so as to increase the visibility for the Officer of the Watch and the lookouts. It is similar to driving a car at night – you don't drive with the interior lights on, as this decreases visibility and creates glare. I just love being up on the Bridge. It is a wonderful place to be – especially at night.

During the sail we also had a combined at sea fire, lifeboat, and piracy attack drill. But during the drill someone saw something in the water and so it ended up being a man-overboard operation as well. We had all crew abandon the drill and report to their final muster stations on Deck 7, so that we could account for them all. The ship was turned around and the rescue boat (also known as the MOB boat – Man OverBoard Boat) prepared for lowering. The Captain announced on the PA (I was up on the bridge - at Muster Control) that this was not part of the drill. Once all crew were accounted for, and we had scouted the area where the object in the water was sighted, we continued with the drill. It turned out that the object was a plastic packet floating in the water. For several moments it was very tense up on the Bridge – and, indeed, on the whole ship. We then continued with the original scenario and did all we had to do, before we were given the orders to stand down and muster. I mustered at Lifeboat Station H – Boat 1, forward starboard. It was very exciting!

We have had several ping pong or table tennis tournaments during the voyage – and those were lots of fun. However, we had them on the days when the ship was rolling a bit, and so this made for interesting games! Dolphins also made their appearance on the bow from time to time. In fact, last Saturday they put on such a magical display, jumping out of the water and swimming along with us. They are such beautiful creatures.

Yesterday, Tuesday the 5th of February, we arrived safely at the Freeport of Monrovia, Liberia. It was very special as it was my 24th birthday. And I was able to celebrate some of this birthday on the sea as well as on land. It was the best of both worlds. I woke early to watch our approach into Monrovia. It was rather eerie as we sailed through thick sea mists, and out of these mists shapes appeared all around us. The shapes were fishermen, in their small boats, waving and welcoming the world’s largest charity hospital ship back to Liberia. We embarked our pilot at 08h05 and by 09h00 had safely docked at our berth. Also moored to our dock is a vessel, Blue Atlantic, which was caught with 3,5 tonnes of cocaine aboard. It was captured by a French frigate. The cocaine (with a street value of US$ 500-million) was handed over to the Liberian government and has been burnt. The ship is now guarded by UN troops. During our Advance Team briefing the Captain made a joke that it’s just as well that the cocaine has been burnt, because if the wind were to blow from the direction of the drug smuggling vessel, then we might have some Mercy Shippers acting stranger than usual! We’re a pretty strange lot as it is!

During the morning I was involved with the Customs, Immigration, Port Authority, and Port Health officials. I was there to help my boss, Rob Cairncross, with anything that needed to be done. And hence I was all smart in my uniform. The afternoon was spent relaxing – and sleeping – and then in the evening myself and my good friend Marius spent time walking and praying together on the dock. We also decided to organise a very informal, last minute party for me. So I had about a dozen of my closest friends meet me in the Midships Lounge where we spent some quality time together. It was good to relax and laugh with good people. I needed it. The friends I have here on the Africa Mercy are amazing. I am truly blessed. I ended my birthday up on the Bridge, doing Swimmer's Watch. So that’s the first update from Monrovia in 2008. Keep posted for more!