"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Are we making a difference?

This is a question that has come to me in recent weeks. Yes we have done several thousand surgeries and treated about 7000 dental patients. But the need is so great.

Take Obstetric Fistula (OBF). This is a condition that has been virtually eliminated in developed countries but is still common in Africa. It is an injury sustained during childbirth that often occurs when a woman needs emergency care, such as a C section, but can't access a hospital. The result is often a still born baby and a tear between the vagina and bladder and sometimes the rectum too. What does this mean? She then "leaks" urine and possibly faeces too all the time. And given that these women generally suffer this condition because they are poor, they don't have access to sanitary products to deal with their condition. Often shunned and abandoned, staying alive is enough of a challenge. Many I am sure, wish for death.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), world wide there are an estimated 2 million women suffering this condition with an estimated 50,000 - 100,000 new cases each year. 2 million women is about equivalent to all the women in Sydney! In Madagascar the number is estimated at 50,000. That's what the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) holds. Or about the size of the whole Australian Defence Force! There are an estimated 2000 new cases per year. These are not small numbers.

This year we have treated around 300 women suffering from OBF. That doesn't seem like a very big number. Running a hospital ship like the Africa Mercy is not a cheap exercise, even with volunteer crew. We burn about 7,000 litres of fuel every day. That adds up to a very large fuel bill. We have a crew of almost 450. We have about 60 mariners in the deck and engineering department just to operate the ship.

Sea water strainer after we finished changing the anodes

So I ask myself, is it all worth it? Are we making a difference? Today I changed the Marine Growth Protection anodes in one of our sea water strainers along with Nathan, an Aussie electrician, and oversaw an Aussie fitter, Timmy, checking main engine injectors. None of this healed a patient. I missed the final OBF Dress Ceremony whilst doing this, as I deemed what I was doing more important than watching a ceremony and hearing the testimonies of these ladies. I kept meaning to attend a Dress Ceremony this field service and never managed to, always putting work first.

Timmy checking fuel injectors

The dress ceremonies are held every few weeks to celebrate the healing and the dry skirts. Each lady receives a new outfit and has her hair and make-up done by the hospital chaplaincy team and then they celebrate their re-birth into society.

But last week the image below was created. Dozens of portraits of these healed women were printed and stuck up in the cafe. Each has two words chosen by the women to represent their feelings before and after their healing surgery. Standing looking at this wall of photos made me realise IT IS WORTH IT.

Without this ship, without the volunteer crew, without the supporters all over the world, the healing of these 300 women would not have occurred. They would have been condemned to a life on the fringe of society. If each of these women lives another 25 years, that equates to 7500 years of living without leaking urine and faeces.

So rather than concentrating on the really big numbers which can be over whelming, I have sat and looked at that beautiful wall of portraits and imagined what a difference we have made to those women. And to their families.

The great news is that this year we have built an OBF clinic in Tamatave and our good friend, Natalie, is staying in Madagascar to run it. Before this year, there was no OBF clinic in Madagascar. Freedom from Fistula is continuing to operate this clinic once Mercy Ships leaves. That is Hope and Healing.