Mercy Ships Celebrates Lasting Impact in 2023

From the moment Malang started to walk, his legs started to bow. His parents watched helplessly, knowing their young son’s future would be limited by his orthopedic condition.

Malang’s father Sadio took him for consultations at multiple hospitals in their home country of Senegal. The visits drained Sadio’s finances, and the necessary surgery would cost even more.

“I went back to my village to do a little business, to help Malang get his surgery,” Sadio said. “But I could not afford it.”

Sadio’s situation is common not only in Senegal, but also across the continent. It is estimated that 5 billion people around the world lack access to safe surgical care – and that approximately 1.7 billion of those are children like Malang. This burden is felt especially heavily in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly half the population is under 18.

A 2021 study that took place in four sub-Saharan African nations found that 60-90% of patients in need of surgery would face “catastrophic” costs if they went through with the operation.

Even if Sadio could come up with the money, he was having trouble finding someone qualified to perform the surgery Malang needed. As he searched, Sadio watched his son’s condition get worse.

“I was very sad when I saw Malang walking like that,” Sadio recalled. “Sometimes his friends would run and leave him behind, and he’d cry.”

Little did Sadio know, right around the time his son was born, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon was making her first visit to Senegal. Her visit would place Malang’s surgery within reach.

Mercy Ships provided 3,295 surgeries for patients like Malang in 2023. Of those surgeries, 1,437 took place on board the Global Mercy™ during field services in two ports – Freetown and Dakar. The ship served patients from three countries – Senegal, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone. This work was only possible thanks to more than 1,318 skilled volunteers from over 67 countries, including 660+ Senegalese, Gambian, and Sierra Leonean national crewmembers.

Access to Surgery

Without volunteer professionals who give their time, the work Mercy Ships does to partner with host nations and offer free surgical care and training would never be possible. One of those volunteers, Dr. Rachel Buckingham, would perform the operation that changed Malang’s life.

In 2019, Dr. Buckingham boarded the Africa Mercy® for the first time. Although it was her first experience volunteering with Mercy Ships, she was propelled by a long legacy of service.

A hundred years before, Dr. Buckingham’s grandmother became a doctor – at a time when some UK universities would not even qualify women as physicians.

“Hearing what she did… made me decide, at age 10, that I wanted to study medicine,” said Dr. Buckingham.

When she arrived in Senegal from the UK, her desire to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps was cemented. She returned to Senegal in 2022, and again in 2023, when she served as the lead orthopedic surgeon for Mercy Ships.

“Coming out here you notice some stark differences in the lack of surgical care,” Dr. Buckingham said. “We treat children with severe deformities. Back home they would never be able to get to that point because we would have treated them in early life.”

In the first half of 2023, the Global Mercy served patients from both Senegal and The Gambia from the Port of Dakar. In August, the ship then sailed to Freetown to serve Sierra Leoneans.

“What keeps me coming back is the need,” Dr. Buckingham said.

In 2012, a survey found that more than 90% of surgical need in Sierra Leone was unmet. In one urban area of The Gambia, researchers estimated more than 85% of children would need surgery by the age of 15. And in Senegal, where Sadio sought surgery to correct Malang’s bowed legs, the search was in vain. He was unable to find a provider who could perform the operation.

Paths Converge

When Dr. Buckingham met Malang on board the Global Mercy, she knew instantly that the 5-year-old’s bowed legs were just the beginning.

“It would have got worse over time,” she said. “He would have been severely limited in his walking ability.”

Dr. Buckingham and her team began treating Malang with vitamin D to strengthen his bones. They also performed a complex surgery to straighten his legs.

“The impact of the surgery will be huge,” Dr. Buckingham said. “It means that he will be able to run around and play with his friends more readily. He’ll be able to obtain an education.”

Fortunately, Malang will never have to carry the worry that his father shouldered.

“He himself will probably never realize how bad his deformity would have got had he not had surgery,” Dr. Buckingham said.

Lasting Impact

Beyond the Global Mercy’s outreach to Senegal, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone, during 2023, Mercy Ships’ work in eight countries included:

· 3,295 surgeries for 2,953 patients

· Training in nutritional agriculture for 93 farmers

· Training for 56 dentists

Malang’s life was one of many changed during the 2023 Mercy Ships field services. And programmatic activities extended beyond individual operations. Through mentoring and training, Mercy Ships continues to partner with local professionals and governments to build the workforce of skilled surgeons and healthcare workers in those countries.

In 2023, Mercy Ships volunteers provided 94,076 hours of training for 1,297 professional healthcare workers. One of those healthcare workers was Dr. Mohamed Sabounji. His mentor was Dr. Buckingham. Dr. Sabounji is a Moroccan surgeon based in Senegal. Dr. Buckingham hopes that soon he will be able to provide specialized orthopedic surgery for more children like Malang. It’s Dr. Buckingham and Dr. Sabounji’s dream that the next father like Sadio will not search for help in vain.

Because of your support, Mercy Ships was able to make hope and healing possible for not only Malang and his father, but also many other kids and families like them this year. Thank you.

With a two-ship fleet, Mercy Ships and its host nations have the opportunity to make double the impact in 2024 – and that means double the volunteers are needed. Do you want to make an impact like Dr. Rachel Buckingham, and all the other crewmembers who made Malang’s surgery possible? Find your place on board.