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Witnessing the work of Mercy Ships first-hand in Madagascar

All scrubbed for surgery viewing aboard Africa Mercy - From left, CLIA's Cindy D'Aoust, Four Winds Interactive's David Levin, Mercy Ships' Bobby Baker and Russ Holmes, and CLIA's Donnie Brown (Photo: Anne Kalosh)
Cruise industry visitors donned surgical scrubs to witness life-changing operations by the volunteer doctors aboard Africa Mercy in Madagascar on Tuesday. Africa Mercy is the floating hospital of Mercy Ships, the Charity of Choice for Cruise Lines International Association.

'I recognize the value and appreciate the work that volunteers do to give back. It's important to me that CLIA as an organization demonstrates our compassion and gives back,' CLIA acting ceo Cindy D'Aoust said on Africa Mercy.

'We want to document the work so when we come back we can give additional support for our partners. For me, personally, it's such a rewarding experience,' she added.

D'Aoust; Donnie Brown, CLIA's director of technical and regulatory affairs, environmental and health; David Levin, ceo of Four Winds Interactive, a cruise industry supplier; and Seatrade Cruise News are at Toamasina in Madagascar this week to study Mercy Ships' work.

They've examined the dockside screening for patients arriving for treatment; toured the ship's hospital deck with its patient wards, blood lab, x-ray machine and CT scanner; and met some of the more than 400 crew, each one a volunteer who pays their own travel expenses and living costs while on board. That includes the doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers, teachers, deckhands and even the ship's captain and chief engineer. All are volunteers.

The interactions with patients and medical personnel made deep impressions.

Before going into the operating rooms, the cruise industry visitors followed Dr. Gary Parker, who has provided volunteer surgical services to Mercy Ships for 29 years, on his morning rounds.

CLIA's Brown described the emotion of seeing the doctor quietly connect with people who had come seeking treatments for disfiguring tumors, cleft palate, fused skin after burns and torn fistulas following childbirth.

The cruise industry visitors had been told many patients arrive at the ship distrustful, fearful and so used to being shamed for their conditions that they often can't make eye contact with others. 

'But that's not what we saw,' Brown said, recounting the smiles on the faces of people who'd had surgery or were mid-way through treatment. He heard a young girl in a hospital bed go through a counting exercise after her cleft palate was repaired, and seeing her smile.

'That's unforgettable,' he said.

As for the operating room experiences, 'It looked like what you would expect surgery to be, but it's hard to believe it happens here on a ship,' Brown related. 'It's not often you see someone before surgery and then in surgery, and to think they have a better prospect ahead of them is incredible.'

For his part, Levin explained why Four Winds Interactive supports Mercy Ships. Cruise lines form a big customer base for digital signage, and when Mercy Ships' Russ Holmes and Bobby Baker, who work in development/corporate relations, addressed employees, 'It was the most moving experience at our annual conference,' Levin said.

Four Winds Interactive supplies a visual communications network at Mercy Ships' corporate office in Texas. And on Africa Mercy this week, Levin is brainstorming about possible shipboard applications.

'The number of lives the organization changes every day is remarkable, and doctors and healthcare providers who donate their time are making a real impact in the world,' Levin said.