In the spring of 2023, seven mentee surgeons boarded the Global Mercy™ while the hospital ship was docked in the west African nation of Senegal. Dr. Alida Ngandjio Sidi, a pediatric surgeon originally from Cameroon, came on board with confidence. She knew this was where she needed to be.
In pursuit of a medical career, Dr. Sidi had moved to Senegal in 2007. After completing her studies, Dr. Sidi became a pediatric surgeon and began working in a busy hospital in Senegal’s second largest city, Thiès. There, she discovered that many of the children she was operating on needed repairs for cleft lips and cleft palates, a commonplace condition that affects 1 in 700 babies born worldwide. Her training had covered little on these conditions, leaving her searching for opportunities to learn more. Unfortunately, she found her desire to learn was restricted by both a lack of resources and a lack of cleft repair specialists in the country to learn from.
In 2020, the chief of medicine at Dr. Sidi’s hospital received an unexpected call from Mercy Ships. Because Mercy Ships had to leave Senegal earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 765 patients with scheduled surgeries had been left waiting for the ship to safely return. Dr. Sidi was asked to help, and she stepped in.
When the Africa Mercy returned to Dakar two years later to follow through on its promise, for over 40 of those patients who had been waiting, there was no longer a need. Dr. Sidi had taken up the mantle and performed their life-changing surgeries in the meantime.
Coming On Board to Learn
Finally, in 2023, it was time for Dr. Sidi to step on board the Global Mercy and pursue the opportunity she’d been looking for. Just a few weeks into her training, she celebrated the fact that she was learning something new every day. “It’s good to be in a good environment to really practice,” she shared. “I have so many expectations… I want to be somebody that grows.”
The hope of the Mercy Ships Education, Training, and Advocacy program is that participants like Dr. Sidi will be able to bring new skills and processes learned on board back to their own hospitals, creating a ripple effect of improved access to safe surgery that continues long after the ship leaves.
Sharing Years of Experience
For Dr. Sidi to specialize in cleft repairs, she would need a guide who was a specialist himself. Dr. David Chong was just the right surgeon for the job. A surgeon and long-time Mercy Ships volunteer from Australia, Dr. Chong said, “I’ve committed 18 years of my life towards learning that. And I can distill those 18 years into a couple of weeks for her, so she doesn’t have to take 18 years to learn all the mistakes that I made to get to where I am.”
While working with her cleft lip patients, many of whom were children, Dr. Sidi received a unique glimpse into how their conditions affected not only themselves, but their families and communities. “They want to have a normal life,” Dr. Sidi said about the people that they treated. “They want to be able to interact with others without shame.”
However, not all the patients she treated were pediatric. Both Dr. Chong and Dr. Sidi were surprised to meet a man named Samba, who came on board for surgery at the age of 56. He’d had his cleft lip since birth, which through the years had left him isolated from his community and limited his career choices. Before Samba came on board, he lived a solitary life as a cattle herder, taking care of his four children.
But after his successful surgery, performed by Dr. Chong and Dr. Sidi, Samba experienced a newfound confidence and lease on life.
After their times with Mercy Ships came to an end, Dr. Sidi and Samba went their separate ways, but it was easy for her to imagine the world of possibilities that awaited him. She saw in his eyes what she had seen in the eyes of so many patients: a new future, revealing itself to him, there for his taking.
“After the operation, when they see themselves, their face is changed every time,” Dr. Sidi explained. “When you look at their eyes, it’s like a new beginning for them.”
“I think that there are many out there just waiting for this opportunity,” she said – and she hopes to be part of rewriting the narrative for many more like Samba.
Looking to the Future
Returning to her hospital, Dr. Sidi strived to apply what she learned, assisted by newly donated surgical equipment that would stretch her capabilities as a surgeon. “I appreciated every minute, every second,” she reflected about the experience, which helped to realize a childhood dream—of seeing a place that offered safe and affordable surgery in her own neighborhood. And that realization gave her a path forward in her own community.
“Since I was 12, I have been dreaming about a place where people can come to have surgery or other treatments,” Dr. Sidi said. “I want to have a place like that in Africa where if I go there, I’m sure that things will be good…The goal is not just doing something, but doing something at the best level.”
Now, the true work could begin – and once again, Dr. Sidi was exactly where she needed to be.
Want to be a part of making new beginnings possible for others? There’s a need for volunteers of all skills and backgrounds on board the Mercy Ships fleet. Whether you’re a medical professional like Dr. Sidi or a mariner, cook, teacher, or plumber, there’s a place for you on board. Learn more about open volunteer opportunities today.