Saturday, 24 December 2016

Farewell.....but not forever

I left Benin and arrived in England just a few short days ago; carrying two suitcases, and a heart full of memories, bursting with love and thankfulness at all that has happened in the last 5 years

My head is a mixture of emotions – I am so excited to be home and spend Christmas with my family for the first time in 5 years. But equally I feel some grief that, after 5 years, I have left what was my world, my life, and my passion. Yes, the day has been and gone when I have walked down the gangway of the Africa Mercy for the last time, and my feet left African soil for the last time as I walked up the gangway of the aircraft to take me home.

5 years ago when I left England to serve on Mercy Ships, I was happy just to be a Mercy Ships anaesthetist, to serve the patients and the crew and make the Africa Mercy Hospital a better place. I didn’t particularly have a heart for the poor or a love for Africa, yet I have grown to love this diverse, rich and beautiful continent, and to have a deep compassion and admiration for the courage of her people.  People (billions and billions of them) who lack the basic requirements for healthcare, millions who sink further and further into poverty because of the out-of-pocket expenses required to pay for surgery; children who are 7 times more likely to die after surgery than they are in the West; and healthcare professionals who can’t do their jobs because of lack of resources, even basics like electricity and water – yet day by day they get out of bed and try to do the best they can. These people have left a deep impression on my heart.

I saw this quote recently on Facebook,

“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it.”

This quote describes very accurately the people who I have lived and worked with for the last 5 years at Mercy Ships. And if the written citation, and the cards I received on my departure are to be believed, then the quote accurately describes me. At some point during my early years on board, a friend gave me a small banner that I kept on my cabin wall, which said, ‘Dream Big for Africa’.

Thank you to everyone, who has joined me in whatever way, to ‘Dream Big for Africa’.  To all those who have trusted me and sometimes with seemingly crazy ideas, and walked alongside me. I am very proud to have left processes in place that have improved the quality of care the Africa Mercy Hospital provides for thousands of patients undergoing transformative surgeries, and to have published medical papers on our results; I am honoured to have led a team of friends and colleagues to develop a reputable training program that seeks to strengthen the surgical ecosystem from grassroots to governmental level in the most impactful way; and to leave a legacy of safer surgery in Madagascar and Benin through our nationwide ‘checklist training’ (which reduces mortality after surgery by up to 50%); and is working to create national surgical plans with the ministries of health.

I kept the ‘Dream Big for Africa’ banner in each cabin I occupied, and also on my office wall, where it was accompanied by two quotes from Nelson Mandela,

‘Education is the greatest weapon you have to change the world’

‘Everything seems impossible until it is done’.

Thank you for being part of Big Dreams that God placed in my heart to do and that he made possible. You have been part of something amazing. In fact, the new Mercy Ships video, starts with me saying exactly that, ‘You have been part of something amazing….’  

Yes – YOU. The video is thanking supporters like you and I echo those thanks.

I am truly honoured and privileged to have been called by God and equipped by Him to play my part in something amazing. Your personal support, in so many varied ways, has made it possible. I am so truly, very grateful for each and every one of you for this opportunity, which has not only transformed the lives of patients and healthcare professionals but also my life as well.

If you’d had told me before I came to Mercy Ships, of all the amazing things that I would be a part of, I’d have said ‘Impossible!

But as Nelson Mandela said, ‘Everything seems impossible until it is done’.  

I have just said farewell to Africa, but I hope it is not forever. For now I lean into the future, to all that God has prepared for me. I am so aware of God’s love and faithfulness as he has stood beside me and provided for me over 5 years. Through the high high’s and the low low’s of my time on board, never once did I walk alone. And I don’t doubt His same faithfulness goes with me in the next season.

So, as we celebrate this Christmas, the love of God made manifest in a baby, let’s remember the impossible miracle of a virgin birth. God made man, to be Emmanuel, God with us, known by us. Yet another impossibility? Maybe, or maybe not? THANK YOU for joining me on my journey, and I pray faith and courage, hope and love over your ‘big dreams’, and ‘your impossibilities’ and that you would know Emmanuel, God with you as you walk forward into your future in 2017.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A season of reflection

I will be leaving Mercy Ships in six weeks time and I am very much in a season of transition. I find myself spending quite a lot of time reflecting on the last five years of working in Africa. Two things in particular have made me reflect.

First, we have had a film crew, or to be precise three film crews from National Geographic on board with us since August. Known as NatGeo, they are making eight, one hour episodes of TV about Mercy Ships. That is huge! The main producer, Madeline, and one of the cameramen was on board with us in Guinea in autumn 2012 and they produced an Australian documentary called The Surgery Ship.  I really liked the way the way Madeline made that film but what has been really interesting is how much Mercy Ships has changed since then. Back then, medical capacity building was only just being thought about and I had just been asked to spend up to 50% of my time thinking how we could do ‘training’. Now, four years later, training is a core part of Mercy Ships’ focus. It has been a big culture shift in how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. I have found it helpful to reflect on how much we have grown organisationally, and personally very rewarding to have NatGeo here to film the medical capacity building story among the numerous patient stories. The NatGeo film teams are fun to work with. I have spent time anesthetising patients that NatGeo are following, including babies with large facial tumours who present huge challenges for anaesthesia; and I have given numerous interviews. I am happy talking about surgery and anaesthesia; I love talking about medical capacity building; and I literally tear up when they ask me about my departure. Tears of grateful thanks at how Mercy Ships has changed and how I have been able to be a part of that, and how I have changed and grown personally, professionally and emotionally. The NatGeo team are such professional interviewers that they seems to know how to ask deep questions in such a way that I find my emotions unravelling as feelings surface that are actually quite hard to articulate. But sometimes tears convey a thousand words.

The second event that caused me to reflect was a recent trip to Chicago. I have been privileged to go to the American Society of Anesthesiology (ASA) meeting for four of the last five years. I was first invited in 2012 to help teach the ‘paediatric difficult airway workshop’.  Over the years my attendance at the ASA has served as not only a great source of continuing medical education for me, (it is huge - approximately 9,000 anesthesiologists and over 600 different sessions), but also a great source of support and encouragement. Back in 2012 when I was just beginning to ask the question, ‘How can Mercy Ships do medical capacity building and how can I create a plan to meet the desires of the Congolese government?’ I met many people at the ASA who were involved in global health or surgical missions. They helped and encouraged me and were good sources of stimulating discussion and proved to be good sounding boards. I quickly realised that ‘none of us have it all together’ and over the last few years we were often wrestling with the same questions and challenges as we strived to make our big dreams reality.  But this year was different. It was still a source of encouragement as I re-connected with people who have now become close friends, but additionally it enabled me to reflect how far Mercy Ships has come, and how much I have learnt.  I attended a few sessions where people discussed issues of credentialing medical volunteers, or how to monitor quality in the surgical outcomes of mission-based surgery, and I realised just what a good job Mercy Ships does in these areas and how over the last five years we have worked hard to create systems and processes that ensure patient safety and that quality of care is our priority. Furthermore, on a very personal note, a few different people at different times commended me on my wisdom and insight. Comments that caused me to pause and look at back at just how much I have learnt over the last few years as Mercy Ships has worked from grassroots level to government level to help build the capacity of low income nations to deliver surgical care and to develop policies that support and strengthen their health systems. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I can pause and reflect how much I have learnt and grown. So this year at the ASA it was a pleasure to be able to give a little back, to provide support and encouragement to others, as well as receiving myself.

I am one of those people who are always looking to the future. I am a visionary and a pioneer. I see what needs to happen and I start to go after it, sometimes without pausing to draw breath. Often I am on to the next thing without waiting for others to catch up!!  And that can be exhausting for those around me! One of the things someone told me once in a feedback session, was that I needed to take time to stop and reflect, not just for myself but for others - to let them catch up and regroup.  But I know it is important for me too. Spiritually , I know pausing and reflecting is vital to draw strength from what we have achieved, to praise God for his hand upon us, and to remember his blessings and favour.  It helps us have thankful hearts that overflow with joy.

So I am grateful for NatGeo and time at the ASA in Chicago that has caused me to pause and reflect. And as I do so, I find my heart full of joy and thankfulness, and that brings tears to my eyes at unexpected moments. SO, today I am thankful for this season of reflection, which I believe it is an important aspect of my transition. In six weeks I will have left Mercy Ships and be in London, expectant at what the future will hold.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

To God be the Glory...always

We often say at Mercy Ships that the one thing you need is flexibility. To be ready to change and adapt. We work in difficult circumstances and unpredictable environments, with a constant turnover of staff. Truly incredible, such that it always seems miraculous we achieve what we achieve. Hence the title of this blog – To God be the glory…always.

We have been in Benin for about 7 weeks, and here is what we have been up to:

Our screening centre was open for 3 weeks to select patients from the Cotonou area, and now our crew and numerous local hired staffed are scattered around the country, finding patients who either cant travel to Cotonou because they cant afford it, or because of their condition, they are too ashamed.

We have done 4 weeks of surgery and the hospital is in full flow. These numbers give you an indication of just how much is happening:

And on the training front, we have already run 3 courses: one SAFE Obstetric Anesthesia; and two courses of Primary Trauma Care, and these utilised a ‘train the trainer’ approach to help teach several Beninoise doctors and nurses how to teach the course themselves.  We have nurses started in our mentoring program as well as surgeons.

The ‘checklist’ team set off on Monday for the first of 30 hospitals where they will teach the World Health Organisation Surgical Safety Checklist, which can reduce deaths and complications after surgery, such as infection, by up to 50%. Incredible potential in this project to save thousands of lives in Benin alone.
We are working with the government to make surgery safer, and more accessible.

To God be the glory…..always. It is such a privilege to be here working alonside the people of Benin. I am loving being back in West Africa, and in particular this is a beautiful country where my longterm service with Mercy Ships began.