Mercy Ships has UVic student feeling ship-shape

The largest ship of its kind, the Africa Mercy is currently docked in Tamatave, Madagascar. Photo provided by Mercy Ships Canada.

The largest ship of its kind, the Africa Mercy is currently docked in Tamatave, Madagascar. Photo provided by Mercy Ships Canada.

It’s not often that one sails halfway around the world to lend a hand to those in need, but one UVic student did just that this summer.

In July, fourth-year microbiology student Jesse Spooner returned from a three-month journey to Madagascar volunteering onboard Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship. The opportunity came through Mercy Ships Canada, a faith-based charity organization that provides surgeries, developmental programs, and training to locals in underdeveloped countries, completely free of charge.

According to their website, Mercy Ships has provided services valued at over $1 billion, including 67 000 surgeries and 572  000 patients. Africa Mercy is currently docked in Toamasina, Madagascar, and will remain there until June 2016.

Spooner originally got involved in early 2013, when a classmate invited him to join the Mercy Ships Campus Club at UVic. “I loved the idea of the club, and what they do,” Spooner said. At the end of his first year, the club’s president graduated, which allowed Spooner to take over. He’s been president ever since.

On Africa Mercy, Spooner volunteered as a housekeeper, an experience he said was amazing. “My job was to keep the hospital ship sanitary and clean so that the patients had a comfortable place to recover.” Spooner also helped out with dental procedures, “[holding] the hands of the worried patients and [playing] with toys with the kids to distract them.”

While the experience was eye-opening, Spooner said it wasn’t without its struggles. “The real challenge was overcoming the language barrier — and maybe jetlag for the first few weeks,” he said. He continued to say that it was tough seeing people afflicted with illnesses “that we do not think about too much in the Western world.”

“Many problems that are an easy fix in Canada may cost a man his job since he cannot afford, or access, the necessary care,” Spooner said. Mercy Ships provides care normally unaffordable to people living in underdeveloped countries, but Spooner says “[they] are also providing people with a chance to re-enter the workforce.”

“I also learned that lots of the patients were seen as afflicted with demons or cursed by a god. So some were living . . . ex-communicated lives.” By performing essential surgeries, Spooner said, “Mercy Ships may be relieving the patients of a stigma as well.”

In the end, Spooner’s first voyage on a Mercy Ship was eye-opening as well as character-building. “The day-to-day experience was amazing. Being surrounded by like-minded people who are striving to improve the healthcare of the world’s forgotten poor is a [constantly] inspiring experience.”

Mercy Ships is an NGO started in 1978 that offers holistic support to developing nations. If you’d like to know more, including how to get involved, visit mercyships.ca and web.uvic.ca/~mships/.

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