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Mercy Ships: Bringing First-World Care to the Developing World

Issue 11

Healthcare workers in the developing world face a huge number of challenges. Even the most qualified doctors cannot perform to the best of their abilities when they don’t have clean water, reliable electricity, and suitable facilities. These are some of the challenges that the international organization Mercy Ships is working to address by operating the world’s largest private hospital ship.

Healthcare workers in the developing world face a huge number of challenges. Even the most qualified doctors cannot perform to the best of their abilities when they don’t have clean water, reliable electricity, and suitable facilities. These are some of the challenges that the international organization Mercy Ships is working to address by operating the world’s largest private hospital ship.

When the Africa Mercy docks for a 10-month stay in a developing country, it brings a modern facility with five operating rooms, 82 patient beds, and the capacity to perform approximately 7,000 surgical procedures annually - all free for patients.

“Having the infrastructure of a first-world hospital sitting there in port allows us to do a lot more than we’d be able to if we were attempting to provide care by shipping equipment in and setting up on the ground,” explains Tom Velnosky, senior bio-medical systems engineer. “We’re able to carefully control the environment for patients, and also give our volunteers a comfortable setup so they can hit the ground running with treatment.”

Volunteer Professionals, Top Quality Care

Among those volunteers are many dental professionals. The Africa Mercy hosts up to 1,200 medical volunteers over the course of its stay in a country, most of whom serve in periods of two weeks to a month. The off ship dental clinic is equipped with eight dental chairs, allowing its volunteer dental professionals to treat patients who have no other access to quality dental care.

“Imagine a toothache that has lasted years,” says Mark Bullock, DDS, lead dentist for Mercy Ships. “Many of our patients have no concept of western levels of dental care, and frequently, care in our clinic is a huge blessing simply because we have and use adequate anesthesia.”

Mercy Ships' volunteer dental team outside the dental clinic in Guinea, Africa.  The dental team provided 45,168 procedures on 12,209 patients plus 950 patients received dental prophylaxis.  Dentures were provided after extraction for 577 patients to improve their smile.  And, while waiting for dental services, all patients received basic oral health training.

Photo Credit: ©Mercy Ships / Debra Bell

As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Dr. Bullock is experienced in delivering care in the poorest places in the world, where he aims to “combat despair with service and compassion.” He explains that the ship’s setup allows the organization to serve patients faster and better than a land-based system. “Our ship-based platform allows for an unprecedented consistency in the quality of care we are able to deliver,” he says. “We are not as susceptible to the rapid deterioration of our facilities and programs that is inherent in developing nations’ health systems. Also, unlike land-based models of aid, we can operate at a much higher operational tempo because our infrastructure is generally reliable.” 

The infrastructure of the dental clinic has been revamped in recent years to a setup that can now accommodate four dentists with two chairs each, four dental assistants, and a hygienist. As part of this renovation, A-dec donated chairs, delivery systems and handpieces.

“The Mercy Ships organization stands out an organization that does great work and doesn’t get a lot of recognition for the amazing things they do,” said Scott Parrish, president of A-dec. “There aren’t many organizations that go everywhere in the world and help so many people like Mercy Ships.”

“It is only through the generous support of partners like A-dec that we have been able to develop such an effective program,” added Dr. Bullock. “Having quality and complementary delivery units, dental chairs and handpieces is truly essential to making our clinic work.”

Touching Lives with Dentistry

Although dental services are only a small part of the care that the Africa Mercy provides, Velnosky explains that they are an important way to touch lives. “The dental needs we treat are typically very immediate and have a simple solution,” he says. “We can quickly solve problems with decaying teeth and issues that would otherwise become painful and problematic in the long term.”

“Generally, there is authentic gratitude and relief from patients,” says Dr. Bullock. “I believe our patients are able to feel our compassion and understanding of their pain and fears and I hope we are able to bring some small level of comfort to their lives.”

In his ongoing work for Mercy Ships, Dr. Bullock hopes to create a model that could be adopted by a country as a comprehensive dental health system. “Currently, our urban clinic is an exceptional model for the delivery of care to the underserved in an urban setting,” he explains. “In the future, I would like to expand our program to include rural interior mobile clinics. I hope to raise awareness that difficult-to-reach populations are often the most desperate for services, and the use of small mobile clinics is the optimal way to provide those services to populations that are too small and too remote to sustain a full sized clinic.”

Mercy Ships' dental team set up a clinic for prisoners inside the prison church in Conakry, Guinea.  350 prisoners were treated. Many were found to be suffering with infected and decayed teeth.  They were grateful for the free dental services provided by the international team.  

Photo Credit: ©Mercy Ships / Debra Bell

Dr. Bullock states that the most fulfilling part of his job is “being able to deliver high levels of care to people that have little access to dental care of any kind, because it provides vision to people of how dental care can positively impact a community.” He adds, “I cannot describe the satisfaction of being able to heal the poorest of the poor at the highest of standards. God has blessed me with a very unique skill set that can improve people’s lives and I feel duty bound to use these skills to the best of my abilities.”

In summing up the importance of the organization and its mission, Dr. Bullock states, “Mercy Ships serves as a reminder to the developed world that there are still people in the world untouched by modern medicine. Equally important, it shows that we are not helpless in the fight against human suffering, but through cooperation, our technologies can be used to make the world a better place.”

Mercy Ships: By the Numbers

  • 67,000+ life-changing operations such as cleft lip and palate repair, cataract removal, orthopaedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repair.

  • 572,000: number of treated patients in village clinics, with over 305,000 dental procedures performed on 119,000 dental patients.

  • 5,800: number of local health-care teachers trained by the organization who have in turn trained many others.

  • Trained over 32,100 local professionals in their area of expertise (anesthesiology, midwifery, sterilization, orthopaedic and reconstructive surgery, leadership)

  • Taught over 164,000 local people in basic health care.

  • 1,100: completed community development projects focusing on water and sanitation, education, infrastructure development and agriculture.
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