Nfld. & Labrador

Skilled N.L. applicants would be ideal for hospital ship volunteer mission, says captain

A ship converted into a hospital providing medical services to people in need in Senegal could benefit a lot from the maritime skills of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, according to its captain.

'If I look back at my life, at this point in my life, this will be one of the highlights,' says Mark Carew

The Africa Mercy ship arrives in Dakar, Senegal, on Aug. 15. (Mercy Ships website)

A ship converted into a hospital providing medical services to people in need in Senegal could benefit a lot from the maritime skills possessed by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, according to its captain.

The Africa Mercy is a ship acquired in 1999 and refurbished specifically for the Mercy Ships mission, which uses hospital ships to transform lives of people in need.

Captain Mark Carew, born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and raised in St. John's, heard about the mission from his daughter.

When she explained the organization to him, it struck a chord.

"I spent most of my career in the oil and gas business on the west coast of Africa, in many countries, and so I have seen first-hand the poverty that is there, and when I made this connection, I said, this is a great way for me to give back to west Africa," Crew said.

If I look back at my life, at this point in my life, this will be one of the highlights.- Mark Carew

Recenty, the Africa Mercy arrived in Senegal, where volunteers will spend the next 10 months providing free surgeries and medical training.

While Carew is currently ashore in Nova Scotia, he plans to be on the boat for its next departure mission.

"Once I was there, it didn't take me very long to realize that this is where I wanted to be. It's my chance to give back. And if I look back at my life, at this point in my life, this will be one of the highlights," he told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"It was a major impact on me and moved me deeply, and now I want to continue the process. I want to volunteer again."

It's an experience Carew said he has a hard time putting into words.

The Africa Mercy will be docked in Dakar for a 10-month medical mission. (Mercy Ships website)

"The children, I think, were the biggest for me, when I saw the children with deformations on their face, large tumours," he said.

"I saw blind people who were blind because of cataracts, which is a fairly minor operation.… In Canada you can get your cataract removed, and these people were completely blind and they would walk up the gangway blind and, almost biblically, they would walk down with their sight. Those were big days for me."

'I was just floored'

Carew said one experience that particularly stood out for him was seeing how many women suffer from obstetric fistula.

Anywhere from two to three million women suffer from the condition in some form

"I was just floored the international community is not doing more for them," Carew said.

Obstetric fistula happens when a pregnant woman goes into labour, and suffers through an obstructed or difficult birth.

In places like Canada, a woman can go in for a caesarean section and deliver her baby that way; in poorer countries, Carew said, the woman could be in labour for two days, cutting off blood supply to her organs.

"A woman can be in labour with a stuck baby for up to two days, continuously in labour for that time," Carew said.

"During that time, the baby's head will be pushing on the bladder and on the bowel of the woman, cutting off the blood supply, and when the baby is eventually delivered, usually stillborn, this lack of bloodflow to her organs causes a hole in the bowel and the bladder and the uterus."

Kimberly Jarvis of Memorial University's faculty of nursing is returning to northern Ghana in January for three months, through a fellowship with the University of Alberta, to continue working on improving lives of women. (Paula Gale/CBC)

The woman loses control over her bodily functions, essentially, and the suffering goes beyond the pain caused by the condition, says Kimberly Jarvis, with Memorial University's faculty of nursing.

Jarvis, who has her PhD focusing on the topic of obstetric fistula, said there's a psychological and social aspect with a "huge impact."

"You can imagine leaking urine and feces, women can end up with a number of sores and infections, infertility is sometimes an outcome. And for many women — I can speak for sub-Saharan Africa — being a mother is a huge deal to them, so the consequences of not being able to have a child is huge," she said.

"Certainly urinary and bowel function can be disrupted, but oftentimes it's that social piece that gets left out and that psychological piece, because women lose a child. And also there's a lot of stigma attached."

This is a group picture of the some of the nurses and patients in the B Ward, during an Albertan nurse's time on the Africa Mercy. (Erin Woodcox)

Jarvis said in some communities, people don't believe it's an actual medical condition, and the women suffer in silence, going undiagnosed and untreated for years.

"I've spoken to women who have contemplated suicide,"Jarvis said, adding some women will starve themselves to avoid an incident.

"They don't drink or eat because they don't want to have increased urination or feces, so they're nutritionally deprived, and oftentimes when I've seen them, they might weigh probably 80 pounds, they're all crumpled up in a little ball, they're very depressed."

'It's very moving'

For Carew, having these suffering women come to the ship for help is an unforgettable sight.

"Usually they're ostracized by their families, their husbands leave them, their community doesn't like them because of the smell, and they're somewhat banished to their own little community often to the wilderness with other women of the same affliction," Carew said.

"They show up at the ship and they have a look on their face similar to the Walking Dead TV show, and they walk up the gangway with no hope, and you can just tell these people have been many years in pain and suffering."

The Africa Mercy is a former rail ferry ship that has been refitted with five operating theatres and an 82-bed ward. (Facebook.com/MercyShips)

While watching the patients suffer is harrowing, Carew said the woman who come to Africa Mercy for help undergo surgery — a fairly minor one, he said, lasting about 90 minutes — to fix it, before going into recovery together.

"During this convalescing, they come together and they sing and they dance and they pray. And that is very emotional," he said.

When they're fully recovered, before they go back to their homes, the ship hosts a farewell dress-up party for them.

"Mercy Ships provides an elaborate, African-style headdress, somebody does their makeup, and they have a dress party. And you will not see one dry eye in the room when this happens," Carew said. "It's very moving."

It's a giant floating hospital ship packed with volunteers from all over Canada.. except from this province. That's where Captain Mark Carew comes in: He's hoping to gather some fresh recruits from Newfoundland and Labrador to join him on a mission next year. 10:00

It's taking in those life-altering moments that drove Carew to return to the Africa Mercy for its next dispatch next year.

And it's also why he wants people in Newfoundland and Labrador to consider joining him.

"I would like to challenge Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with maritime backgrounds, skilled tradesmen like plumbers, electricians, marine officers, decorating, catering people, stewards, coffee shop workers, hair dressers — all of these positions are available," he said, pointing people to the Mercy Ships website.

"Newfoundland has a great affiliation with the ocean, and I think I would just love to see more Newfoundlanders use their time and their skills on board a ship like this, and we could represent the province of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show