Before I arrived at Mercy Ships I had a good idea of what they were about . I looked at websites, blogs and videos and that can tell a person a lot about an organisation. And I don’t just mean what their graphic designers are like. I mean what their morals are and what their purpose is (luckily they communicate this well with a brilliant media team). From those things you can learn that Mercy Ships is a faith based Non-Governmental Organisation. You learn that its aim is to help people by fixing things surgically. You learn that the organisation has a heart for the forgotten poor. It is also evident that they want to train people in Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing and basic Surgical skills. This told me that this organisation also has a heart, not just for doing, but for leaving something behind. Education can be the difference between life and death. The idea of equipping people to be self sufficient and to establish services that are sustainable long after this ship leaves is so exciting.
That is the big picture… but what does Mercy Ships achieve on a small scale? What I have learnt during my first few weeks is certainly not rocket science and for at least 400 people currently on this ship this is nothing new, but it impressed me and I want to share it.
The glamour of Mercy Ships and what brings in a lot of the donations that fund this organisation is the visual aspect of what we do. It’s the big impressive tumours that we never see in our own countries. It’s the obtusely bowed legs of 5 year olds that melt our hearts, and essentially open our wallets so that more children can be fixed. This is great, but is that all? Is it just about fixing faces? I don’t think so. What I have been observing is that this is so much more than surgically fixing people. I have been here for 3 weeks now. I have seen quite a few faces change within that time. And that’s cool. But strangely enough this is not the thing that I have found most amazing. Its great to see pictures of sad people with massive tumours and compare them to pictures of happy people with no tumours. Its great to shake somebodies hand as they leave completely healed and changed. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way demeaning the skills, donations or hard work that is necessary to change these faces and this is after all the visual layer of what Mercy Ships do. We change faces.
But, the thing that has spoken to me most since being here is not the actual fixing. The face change is great but there is something else I have observed which is beautiful. Something that happens long before the operation begins.
This is the story.
New admissions walk up the gangway and enter our ward. D-Ward. We specialise in head and neck surgery. The patients arrive and get settled in and then have their operation the next day. Mothers come to Mercy Ships with their babies on their backs tied with colourful fabric. When they enter the ward the babies are hidden; it’s a visual picture of the shame and ridicule they have suffered. Unlike many Congolese I’ve met, our patients are initially guarded and extremely guarded over their children. These are the mothers of babies with deformed faces.
Cleft palates, cleft lips and tumours.
At home these things are normally operated on easily and fixed before people really notice and certainly before pictures go up on Facebook. And for us in England this problem can be fixed for free on the NHS. That service is not available here and treatment is expensive. I have met several adults with cleft palates which we would never see at home but here, if you don’t have money, that deformity defines who you are and stays with you for the rest of your life. I noticed that the mothers don’t seem to actively celebrate their babies. They don’t play with them and there are no smiles.
On my first day at work I observed this and thought how different Congolese Mum’s are; until I realised this is not a cultural thing this is a defence mechanism from Mum’s that have suffered on behalf of their children looking different. Some Mum’s said that they thought their child was the only child to have this condition and that nothing could be done. I guess they don’t have support groups out here where you learn that there are others who know how you feel and you can support each other. I continued to observe and after only a few hours of interaction with nurses things started to change. The nurses would play with the babies. They would hold them. They tell the mothers how beautiful their children are. This was not a lie or even a white lie, it was the truth. These babies are gorgeous! After a while I saw a change in the mothers. They started to play with their babies. They started to celebrate them and publicly love them. Its not as if they didn’t love them before, but experience had told them their babies weren’t desirable and culture told them they had to be hidden. They just aren’t used to anyone else wanting to celebrate their babies.
What I have seen is a shift in behaviour from hiding their children from sight to actively celebrating them. They begin to openly love their babies all because a few nurses tell them they are beautiful. Because someone shows compassion.
This is precious. To watch a Mum love her child. Watch her sing songs to her baby. To watch that relationship develop without a care for what the world thinks. This is how a Mum should feel about her baby from the first moment it’s born. Pride.
What I’ve seen here is that expression over and over again. It’s as if the babies are being born in to the world again but this time in to safe environment where a baby is celebrated regardless of its deformity. Then the child has surgery and comes back with a fixed face and the relationship blossoms, but I realised that actually its not the cleft palate operation or the correcting of deformed legs that improves the quality of that relationship. It starts before the surgery. It starts when a nurse acknowledges a person and says I know you look strange and you have been bullied and laughed at but I think you are beautiful and I love you.
The mission statement of Mercy Ships is to serve one person at a time, love one person at a time, one by one. To always remember that we are dealing with people, human beings. To be effective we can only serve one person at a time. Sometimes a small picture results in a bigger outcome. Mother Teresa focused on the small picture, she said
“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one. So you begin. I began – I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin – one, one, one.”
Such a small simple view point but she touched so many lives. When I stand in that ward and watch the nurses, I see Mother Teresa and hear this statement. They don’t even realise it but they are acknowledging these people, loving them, changing perceptions and attitudes, sometimes months before the fixing even starts. People come and are accepted and welcomed in one by one.
I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool. I’m only at the beginning but I look around me and I’m excited to be a part of this organisation already.
Thanks for Reading;
These thoughts are my thoughts and they don’t represent Mercy Ships they just represent the thoughts of one nurse who works with Mercy Ships. These pictures are a mix of my own and Mercy Ships which are publicly available.