Listen: Sydney nurse Sonja Dawson talks about her experience on the Africa Mercy hospital ship, which now features in a TV series. Images courtesty of The Surgery Ship Instagram.
Sailing for distant shores on a giant ship, you’re bound to come home with tales to tell. But when you board the Africa Mercy, it’s not stories of five-star resorts and fine dining you bring back—but stories of transformed lives.
Some of these stories are now featured in an eight-part TV series screening on the National Geographic channel, called The Surgery Ship.
The show follows a team of volunteer doctors and nurses sailing to the poorest nations aboard the Africa Mercy – a hospital ship run by the Christian-based charity, Mercy Ships.
The complex medical challenges they face are only half of the story. The volunteer medical professionals confront ethical decisions as they decide who will be helped and who will not.
Sonja Dawson is one of the nurses who has served on the Africa Mercy.
For Sonja, what started out as a three month volunteer experience turned into almost twelve years of carrying out life-saving medical services.
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Sonja chatted to Laura and Duncan from Hope Breakfast about her love for the work,
“Two to three weeks in I thought, wow—this is amazing work, I could stay here forever. I came back to Australia to get married and have taken my husband back,” she said.
One Patient at a Time
It can be a daunting feeling when the ship anchors onto land, and you find yourself looking out onto a sea of desperate patients seeking medical aid, says Sonja. It’s a moment that the TV series can only begin to convey.These are patients with extreme medical conditions such as face tumours, club feet, cleft palates, and flesh-eating diseases. Episodes of The Surgery Ship tell just a few of the countless stories of tragedy and hope that make up that sea of people.
According to Mercy Ships, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population can’t access essential surgery and for many, the hospital ship is their only hope.
When the number of patients grows in front of you, the feeling of helplessness also grows, says Sonja, and taking care of one patient at a time is how she keeps going.
“If you looked at the big need and didn’t look at the one person in front of you, you’d get overwhelmed and probably give up; there are many situations where we have been in that position,” Sonja said.
In those overwhelming situations, Sonja’s faith in Jesus helps her stay focused with the task at hand.
“We can actually give that tangible hope to people with the good news of Jesus, because there is life beyond this. We can offer that hope to those that perhaps can’t be healed in this life, but they can in the next life,” she said.
Strengthening The Local Health Systems
The Africa Mercy ship functions like any other hospital, with doctors and nurses on different shifts. There are operating rooms available from Monday to Friday and if there is an emergency after hours, it’s all hands on deck for the volunteer nurses and doctors on board.
Not only does the ship provide the highest standard of medical assistance to people with the lowest state of medical living, it also offers support to strengthen the surgical health system of the country.
“We can help lessen the dependence on external help by promoting and doing training with doctors and nurses, high medical engineers, helping to make the hospital safer,” Sonja said.
This is one of the reasons why the ship visits countries like Benin in West Africa.
“Sadly, on the United Nations Human Development Index, Australia ranks second out of 188 countries and Benin, which is where the ship has been, is ranked 166,” Sonja said.
This Index is based on quality of life, health services and education, showing the desperate medical need that Mercy Ships are fulfilling.
Not Without Coffee
The life of a Mercy Ship volunteer is not all-work-and-no-play; with over 450 volunteers on board, there are plenty of opportunities to have fun.
“Life wouldn’t be right without coffee,” Sonja said.
“In the middle of the ship there’s a little Starbucks café, you can grab a coffee and play board games, there’s volleyball on the deck and a small swimming pool to cool off, because it can get hot in West Africa.”
Mercy Ships dock in a different country each year, and the crew come from 35 nations around the world to fill both medical and support roles.
Since being founded in 1978, to date they have treated 2.5 million people, performed over 92,000 surgeries, and trained 38,000 health workers.
Catch the Show
Catch The Surgery Ship on Nat Geo People on Foxtel or Fetch, until June 6. There is also a standalone SBS documentary DVD about the Africa Mercy, available in the Mercy Ships store.