Community, Staff profile,

Setting sail to help the most vulnerable

A Latrobe Regional Health emergency department nurse has been using her much sought-after skills to help the most vulnerable people in developing nations.

Registered nurse Michelle McEwan has recently returned from a five month stint as a volunteer pre-op nurse aboard the Global Mercy ship delivering life-saving surgery in Dakar, Senegal on the western coast of Africa.

Mercy Ships is a volunteer-run, Christian-based not-for-profit organisation. It runs fully-equipped floating hospital ships that provide essential surgeries in countries with scant health systems.

It also builds relationships with governments in host countries to help train local medicos.

This has been the fifth time Michelle has volunteered on Mercy Ships, helping people in countries such as Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Guinea and Senegal.

She said many cases were so extreme that treatable conditions were left to become life-threatening due to a lack of basic preventative healthcare.

“This could include anything from benign facial tumours, cleft palates or lips, orthopaedic conditions such as bowed legs or extreme burn contractures,” Michelle said.

“The healthcare systems are so under-funded or non-existent that benign tumours can grow to the point of asphyxiation. This would never happen here.

“These people would die younger or live in pain if they couldn’t get surgery. A lot of them have no money and own only the clothes they are wearing.”

She said burns were common due to cooking on open fires, and many patients ended up with significant injuries due to a lack of medical care at the time of the incident.

Michelle cited a case on one of her previous trips of a woman who turned up after her clothing caught fire, fused her arm to her side and melded her fingers together.

This time, she developed a friendship with a 13-year-old boy named Aliou from Senegal, who presented with two bowed-legs, one facing backwards.

“Vitamin deficiencies are quite common. Aliou was such a beautiful boy, but he couldn’t walk without a lot of difficulty and pain so he couldn’t go to school, so he had no access to education,” she said.

“Surgery means he can now have a future and be able to drive a vehicle and get some income. After surgery he was a different boy.

“Some of these people are ostracised in their communities, some with facial tumours keep themselves covered so they are not mocked, but after surgery their faces light up.”

Michelle said the logistics of running the vessel was “amazing” and it was decked-out like any modern hospital with surgeons, clinical staff, cleaners, food services, plus translators and ship crew.

She said volunteers came from all over the world, and shipping containers with supplies were brought in from the US and Europe so the ship “lacked nothing”.

“You see people’s lives changed, they can then return home and in most cases, live a normal life,” Michelle said.

“I encourage others to go – and not just nurses. It is a very rewarding way to use your skills and be part of something that brings such life changing results for those that Mercy Ships helps.”