The world’s largest purpose-built civilian hospital ship, the Global Mercy®, is projected to serve 150,000 patients over the next five decades – and it all begins with Amadou, a 4-year-old with a windswept leg and bowed leg from southern Senegal. With an orthopedic surgery on March 6, Amadou was the first patient to ever receive surgery on board the new ship.
“He started walking, and we noticed that he had problems,” Amadou’s caregiver, Mariatou, explained. Differences really became apparent to Mariatou as Amadou interacted more with his peers, especially during mealtimes.
“They can just go by themselves and eat without having something to sit on, but for him, it’s not the case,” Mariatou continued. Because Amadou’s condition caused uneven weight distribution, the simple act of sitting was painful. Early surgical intervention helped repair his condition before his development was severely impacted.
“For Amadou and his family, it will be life-changing because they will see his leg will be straight. They may never know the full implication . . . if we left him and did nothing, his deformity is likely to get worse, so they may never know how bad it could have got, had we not intervened,” said Dr. Rachel Buckingham, the orthopedic surgeon who performed Amadou’s operation.
“Senegal does not have any children’s orthopedic surgeons, which means that to try and have this surgery, patients would have to travel to another country, which obviously is prohibitively expensive for most people, so most of these patients would never have the opportunity to have surgery,” Dr. Buckingham added.
Amadou’s is the first of over 40 planned pediatric orthopedic operations this month. Over the next four months, the Global Mercy will provide over 800 safe, free surgeries.
“It’s a dream come true to see patients on board,” said South African nurse Evilin Marx.
For Evilin, it has been a dream since at least 2015, when she joined the Global Mercy in China. At the time, the vessel was just beginning construction, and her husband Renier was overseeing engineering on the project. Along with their children, they were among the crew sailing the Global Mercy in 2021 to Europe, where hundreds of volunteers joined for the vessel’s equipping phases.
“A hospital came to life, and that’s incredible,” echoed ward administrative assistant Melody Nido. The Swiss volunteer originally joined the Africa Mercy® during the pandemic, then served on board the Global Mercy throughout the vessel’s equipping. Almost all her work so far has been outside the hospital, which was not yet ready to operate. “I have been waiting for this field service,” she explained before beaming, “I am beyond excited!”
For Melody, the Global Mercy is the culmination of three years of service with the organization. For Amadou, the Global Mercy marks the end of a 400-mile journey that took him and Mariatou from hospital to hospital across Senegal – and the beginning of a new chapter of his life.
Surgically, the Global Mercy is picking up where the Africa Mercy left off last year, and even finishing what her sister ship started in 2019 when she docked in Dakar for the first time.
“One exciting thing is we’re actually going to have some of our orthopedic patients from [the first Senegal field service] come back,” said orthopedic team leader Ansley Burnett, who oversees the wards that will house Amadou and the other first patients.
“Everything in here is brand new,” she continued. The American nurse is especially thankful for the patient beds, because each comes with an additional bed underneath for caregivers like Mariatou. “All of our orthopedic patients are pediatric, so they all come with a caregiver, so it’s nice to have a purpose-built thing for them.”
Ansley is most looking forward to a particular milestone in Amadou’s healing. “The coolest part of orthopedics is when you see their casts come off,” she explained. “Sometimes, they still don’t believe that their legs are really straight underneath them, so just seeing that childhood joy and awe and excitement of seeing that come to life, and seeing those dreams come true—and for the parents as well, it’s a very emotional experience.”
Although Mercy Ships has returned to Senegal, “it’s a fresh start with a fresh ship,” Ansley remarked. This field service marks the first time that a Mercy Ship will serve two nations from one port, as up to 25 percent of the patients will come across the border from the neighboring country of The Gambia.
“It’s so amazing because we really need it too,” said Gambian crewmember Jainaba Sowe. The hospital chaplain joined Mercy Ships in Senegal last year and will now be working directly with her countrypeople in her role “to comfort the patients—to be there with the patients in good times, and also in bad times.” She added, “I can’t wait to see my Gambian brothers and sisters.”
During this historic field service, Mercy Ships will welcome over 600 participants for courses designed to strengthen national surgical care systems. Meanwhile, the floating hospital will focus on bringing hope and healing through eye, general, maxillofacial, orthopedic, pediatric, and reconstructive-plastic surgeries.
The implications of each surgery are life-changing – often in simple yet profound ways.
“To be like the others,” answered Mariatou about her greatest wish for Amadou. “I will be happy for that. I am looking forward to seeing that happen.”