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Nine-year-old Benedict walks down the gangway of the Africa Mercy before his surgery.

AAOS Now

Published 1/1/2008
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Michael Osborne

Floating hospital brings hope and healing

Mercy Ships take AAOS members to war-torn West Africa

Four AAOS members participated in the first round of orthopaedic surgeries conducted aboard the world’s largest charity hospital ship—the Mercy Ships vessel Africa Mercy. While the vessel was docked in Monrovia, Liberia, James R. McDaniel, MD; Ned M. Grove, MD; Paul R. Linquist, MD; and John Brian Sims, MD, performed orthopaedic procedures on 71 West African patients.

Fresh from a multimillion dollar refit, the Africa Mercy arrived in Liberia in late May to begin her inaugural field service. The 17,000-ton vessel boasts six operating theaters, a 78-bed recovery ward, a computed tomography scanner, a mobile C-Arm, and cabin space for more than 400 volunteer crew members.

After spending several days screening potential patients in early July, Dr. Sims, of Amarillo, Texas, said, “What impresses me most is just how hardy the African people are, what they’re able to put up with. They continue to work and function in life despite what would normally be a completely disabling injury.

“I saw a woman in her 70s yesterday who had a nonunion fracture of her femur. Yet she walked into the screening and she walked out again. When we told her we were going to schedule her for surgery, she just got the biggest smile, she put her hands in the air and she praised God,” he recalled.

From grenade injuries to clubfoot deformities
The orthopaedic team encountered a variety of injuries and physical defects—everything from polio deformities to old grenade and gunshot wounds sustained during the 14-year-long Liberian Civil War. More than half the surgeries conducted, however, were to correct clubfeet. Patients in their teens and even older with the deformity are not usually seen by Dr. Sims in his stateside practice.

“The true, neglected clubfoot, the foot that’s never had any treatment whatsoever is just really unheard of [in developed countries],” he said. “It’s usually diagnosed within the first day of life. Here it’s common to see people who’ve had clubfoot all their lives.”

Nine-year-old Benedict walks down the gangway of the Africa Mercy before his surgery.
Two months later, Benedict smiles as Dr. McDaniel changes his cast. Ann McFarland, PA, the orthopaedic care coordinator for the 2007 Liberia field service, assists.

Among those treated by Dr. Sims for clubfoot were a 2-year-old girl named Cynthia and a 9-year-old boy named Benedict. Both children endured tremendous ridicule and persecution because of their disabilities. Both were abandoned by their fathers because of the social stigma such deformities still engender in much of Africa.

“We’ve talked to teens and adults who have clubfoot or some other deformity,” said orthopaedic team member Dawn Crowther. “Many times they tell us they’ve never been to school because of the disability. Maybe by helping them at younger ages, we’ll be able to alter the course of their lives, to give them a future they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

The orthopaedic team partnered with medical professionals both on and off the ship to ensure continuation of care after they returned home. Orthopaedic care coordinator Ann McFarland saw each patient every 2 weeks well into the fall. Physical and occupational therapists volunteering with Mercy Ships provided rehabilitation services. A Liberian rehabilitation lab generously offered to build and maintain, without charge, any orthotics the patients might need.

Volunteers needed for 2009
Surgeons from the United States and the United Kingdom flew to Liberia at their own expense to conduct the surgeries. Volunteers, especially pediatric orthopaedists, are being sought now to conduct additional operations aboard the floating hospital when the Africa Mercy returns to West Africa in early 2009; slots for 2008 are already filled.

For more information on this and other programs offered by Mercy Ships, visit www.mercyships.org or e-mail info@mercyships.org

Mercy Ships will also have a booth at the AAOS 75th Annual Meeting in San Francisco; visit them at Moscone West, Level 2.

Michael Osborne is a writer in the Mercy Ships communications department. He can be reached at michael.osborne@mercyships.org

Did you know?

  • More than 1,600 short-term volunteers serve with Mercy Ships each year.
  • More than 1.7 million services—valued at more than $670 million and directly affecting more than 1.9 million people—have been performed on Mercy Ships since 1978.
  • Of these services, more than 32,500 are surgeries, including orthopaedic surgeries.
  • Mercy Ships have delivered more than $60 million worth of medical equipment, hospital supplies, and medicine to countries around the globe.