Over the next couple days I would meet my peers and get oriented with the ship, its various operations and my responsibilities as a photographer. Our tasks in the media department range from covering patients' stories to shooting before and after portraits (pre and post ops) of those patients for the medical department, to documenting surgeries, ship life, and crew members.
The only way that Mercy ships can provide free medical care to the poor is if the crew aboard the ship is entirely volunteer. Everyone from the Captain, doctors to the deck hands are there on volunteer basis. Where does the funding come from? Mercy Ships raises support through corporate and individual donations. The photographers are the eyes of this outreach and give a voice to the work being done. The various procedures that Mercy Ships provides are Maxillofacial (tumor removal and cleft lip/palate), Ophthalmic, General Surgery, Urogynecologic (VVF), Pediatric Orthopaedics, and Plastics. I'm gaining a lot of exposure to the medical field just by being in the wards.
Organizations like SmileTrain donate $450 per cleft lip and palate that need to be treated. If we don't take the proper documentation to prove that the patients needed the procedure, Mercy Ships won't be provided the proper funding and has to absorb the cost of the operation. It took four of us to photograph one baby for this documentation. Since they are healing from the palette surgery its a delicate process to get the infants to open their mouth wide enough to shoot the roof of their mouth. One nurse held a flash light, another held the tongue depressor, my peer cradled the baby I snapped the shot. It took several attempts before we got a clear shot while this little one squirmed about like a baby aligator. The whole process can be a stressful experience since you don't want to cause the infant any pain but its a necessary procedure.
In addition to providing free medical care, local doctors come aboard the Africa Mercy to receive further training. This is no easy task because even if the knowlege is acquired, the infrastructure may not exist in some West African countries to put the training into practice. This is a fairly new development in the Mercy Ships operations but the hope is that doctors of prospective countries can eventually be self sustaining and train other medical professionals. There is an agricultural team on board that also trains local farmers in harvesting techniques. The photographers cover all sorts of training sessions.
It is a long journey of recovery for many of these patients but it's worth every ounce of effort to get them
on that path.
© 2012 Mercy Ships-Photo by Ryan Chen