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

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