A Firsthand Account of Mercy Africa’s Assessment Day
Today was the day that thousands have been waiting for - no, not in Washington, D.C., but in Pointe Noir, Congo where the Africa Mercy will be docked for the next 10 months.
Mercy Ships calls these "assessment days," when potential patients who have heard about the ship and are brave and curious enough come to give hope a chance. Many people here either have no access to any basic medical care, or their condition is so severe the few doctors in country are ill-equipped to help. Some have been turned down so many times for help that they've lived for years with punishing pain, gigantic tumors or blinding cataracts. There are many children - some with orthopedic needs, others with untreatable problems, at least not ones that surgery can solve, like Cerebral Palsy.
This morning started months ago for many of the volunteers on the ship, with a lot of them working through the night to get everything set up. Logistics, security, and pacing of the patients. For us, we departed the ship at 6 a.m. and arrived as the sun was rising. Already, a couple of thousand people had lined up with the hope they could be seen by a doctor to help their conditions. The weather was warm but there was cloud cover and a nice breeze. No rain, thankfully!
The first person they meet is a cheerful and warm hospitality greeter. Then they see a screening nurse. This is where the nurses do a very quick assessment and give out a little card that tells them to go through. Colored cards allowed people to go to the right side of the hallway, where they were then taken for registration, case history and finally to a doctor who makes a final decision about whether to schedule a surgery. Those given white cards were escorted to a final stop with an option for a prayer before departing.
Over seven thousand people came through the gate today and were seen by the volunteers. Over 4,200 were given referral cards to move on to the next step to see the doctors. And over the next several months, surgeries will be performed almost daily - some are straightforward, while others are much more complicated and may require additional treatments, operations or therapies. Everyone was treated with the dignity and grace they deserve, though many of them may never have known such kindness or how to process such generosity; there was a feeling that whatever was being done here on earth, someone else, of a higher power, was definitely in charge.
A few observations about this remarkable day:
The nurses have such sweet natures, though don't let that fool you into thinking they aren't tough as can be. I tried so hard not to cry during the assessments, especially once the mother or father was told there was nothing that could be done to help their children. But these nurses didn't cry, as much as their hearts were breaking. Also, I noticed that all of them stressed to the moms and dads that they weren't to blame for their kids' conditions, that they were good mamas and that they were doing the best they could. I imagine it meant a lot to hear someone in uniform, with such knowledge and authority, say those words.
The doctors work extremely well together, consulting with one another and then communicating (often through translators) to the patient what the options are for treatment. Sometimes, the doctor advises against a treatment - if a child is too weak or too young for major surgery, for example, there's an infant feeding program that is available to help get the baby to a healthy weight. I learned so much from them about cleft palates, German measles, Cruzon syndrome, and more. They seem to be able to solve multiple problems with whatever is available. I nicknamed them "McGyver MDs." They seems to like that title!
The patients were very...patient. They had a calm, stoic way about them. Accepting with gratitude a chance to see a doctor, and quietly absorbing the disappointment if, unfortunately, there was nothing that Mercy Ships could do for them.
In addition to the medical staff, there is an entire crew from the ship that goes ashore on assessment day to do all matter of jobs - escorting people from the screening to the next stop; providing peanut butter sandwiches, apples and water; carrying a child to the exit so that the mother could have a break after standing in line for hours; and taking photographs of the patients to help identify them and to help chart their progress after surgery. There are also security officers, engineers and people to help entertain the kids with crafts and games.
Tomorrow we will see more activity as dockside screening continues, and we'll get to visit the eye and dental clinic that's being held regularly during the months in port. We also need to wash some clothes!