Africa Mercy: Hospital of hope
The following script is from "Africa Mercy" which aired on Feb. 17, 2013. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Henry Schuster and Rachael Kun Morehouse, producers.
60 Minutes Overtime
Around the world, countless millions suffer with diseases that could be easily cured if those patients could reach modern medical care. For a fortunate few, there is a lifeline called "Africa Mercy." She is the largest civilian hospital ship on the seas. But she is also the closest thing to a time machine you're ever likely to see. Her largely American crew brings 21st century medicine to people who believe that illnesses are caused by evil spirits. The patients' beliefs may seem archaic but their courage is to be admired. They suffer from diseases unseen in America-illnesses that can make you believe in curses. Spend a few days, as we did, aboard the Africa Mercy and you will see how two worlds meet at the intersection of courage and compassion.
She can be described in the usual dimensions of a ship; 500 feet in length, eight decks, a crew of 450. Or you can reckon Africa Mercy as a hospital; 90 nurses, 15 doctors, 78 beds and six operating rooms. One of the first doctors who invited us into surgery was Gary Parker, a maxillofacial surgeon, who came to the ship on lark.
Gary Parker: And I remember saying to myself, "When I get an opportunity I want to come, maybe for a few months, and just see what this is about." See if I'm cut out of the right fabric for that kind of life.
Scott Pelley: And how long have you been here?
Gary Parker: Twenty-six years.
You'll understand why he stayed when you see the ship at work, as we did, in Togo, West Africa.
A lot of ways here haven't changed in centuries, most live on two dollars a day. There are few medical facilities. When the ship comes in, folks line up by the thousands for free dental surgery, eye surgery, and maxillofacial procedures for cleft palates and other deformities.
Africa Mercy makes port in countries all along the arc of West Africa. Eighteen hundred miles where slave ships used to land.
Scott Pelley: Trace that coastline and you've put your finger on several of the poorest countries on Earth. Here in Togo, the lack of development and the poverty mean that one out of 10 children, one out of 10, dies before the age of five. They die of diseases that we just don't see in the United States, including a particular kind of facial tumor that is a specialty of the ship. What you're about to see is very hard to look at, but if you're patient, it will be worth it.
Gary Parker is the chief surgeon and one of his patients, Edoh, was back for a check up 17 years after surgery. You're thinking she's disfigured now, but in 1995, at the age 9, a tumor destroyed her face and it was crushing her windpipe.
Gary Parker: She was struggling to breathe. I was amazed at the sense of community. Lots of people were waiting outside the gate and many with problems of their own. But when they saw Edoh, they picked her up, put her over her-- over their heads and literally passed her through the crowd, over the gate, and into the screening because they recognized her needs were greater.
These tumors aren't cancer, they're benign. In fact, it's tooth enamel that won't stop growing. In the U.S., a dentist would remove it before it shows. But here, it's understood to be a curse.
Gary Parker: These are people that go out at night and they forage for food. And then, in the day, they hide. They can't go to the market. They certainly can't go to school. They are isolated.
Scott Pelley: So these patients arrive and they're coming up the gangway. What do you imagine that's like for them?
Gary Parker: I've seen it happen over and over and over again that when they are greeted on the ship, or when they're greeted at screening and someone comes and shakes their hand, it's like "Somebody recognizes that I'm inside here." You know, "I'm trapped. I can't get away from this tumor. But I'm still in here." And the healing begins when they get acceptance based on who they are, no conditions, just, "we know you're in there, Fatimata, we know you're in there."
And that's what he told a woman named Marta who's been trapped behind a tumor that has been growing for three years. Her husband had banished her from the home.
Scott Pelley: She could die over time from this?
Gary Parker: Oh yeah. Why, in 2012, should people be dying of benign disease? There are lots of reasons, there are no good reasons but there are lots of reasons that that's the case.
Scott Pelley: So you're going to replace her jaw with a titanium jaw essentially?
Gary Parker: Yeah. And then some months later, bone from the hip is taken and put around the titanium. And that grows into new jaw bone.
We followed Marta's progress over several months and in a moment, we'll show you the change.
Gary Parker: The uniform that's put on people when you have these terrible deformities is, "You're rubbish. You're worthless. You're spiritually cursed. You're ...." And when you can change the uniform, it's huge. And the person starts to imagine that they might not be rubbish after all. No one in our world is rubbish.
Edoh, that first patient we met, who came as a child, reclaimed her humanity with four surgeries in 17 years.
Scott Pelley: I understand that you're in school. What are you studying?
Translator: She wants to become a nurse to help other people too.
Scott Pelley: She wants to be a nurse.
Scott Pelley: She's met a lot of good nurses in her life.
And we met a lot of good nurses, too. Ali Chandra is from New Jersey.
Scott Pelley: You know, you could be a nurse anywhere. You could be a nurse back home. I wonder why you do this work?
Ali Chandra: I could never be a nurse back home anymore. I could never go back. There's just this sense of real community that I would really, really miss if I ever left this.
One of her jobs in this community is to care for the sickest patients.
[Ali Chandra: You're alright, baby, you're alright.]
This is Esther, another one of the tumor patients, as her breathing tube was being removed.
Esther's tumor was massive and her recovery a desperate struggle.
[Ali Chandra: Hey I hear your voice, I hear your voice, that's so good.]
Esther could not understand the language but the touch was unmistakable.
[Ali Chandra: Good job, sweetheart.]
Scott Pelley: You know that there are some people watching this interview who are saying to themselves, "I could never do what she does. Those poor people are terribly disfigured. I can't look at them."
Ali Chandra: People have been saying that to these people their whole lives and someone has to look at them. Someone has to look them in the eye and tell them that you're human and I recognize that in you. It's really interesting when -- sorry -- when new nurses come. A lot of the times they're very shocked and you can tell that, this is, oh I remember that, the first time I saw that it was kind of shocking but you, it gets to the point where you don't-- you don't see it anymore. You don't see the tumor. You just can see the person's eyes. Or if they only have one eye because the other one is a tumor, you find their eye and you find a way to connect with them.
That personal connection can last for years. A lot of these patients need multiple surgeries and they'll come back again and again as the ship returns.
The idea for all of this, set sail back in 1978, when Don Stephens of Texas started the charity he calls Mercy Ships.
Scott Pelley: So how did you find this ship?
Don Stephens: We found her in Denmark. She was a rail ferry...
Africa Mercy replaced three earlier vessels. And Stephens says that over 35 years, hundreds of thousands of patients have been aboard his ships.
Scott Pelley: Where does the money come from?
Don Stephens: We've got corporate sponsors that we couldn't do what we do without them. Secondly, by the crew themselves. We have a unique business model. We charge everyone for the privilege of volunteering.
Scott Pelley: And you pay them nothing?
Don Stephens: Everyone pays their own way.
Doctors, nurses and crew pay their own way with donations from home, mostly from churches. You're often reminded onboard that this is a Christian charity.
[Ali Chandra: God you are good.
Gary Parker: We pray for your protection over her.
Nurse: And we pray for a complete recovery.]
A charity that treats patients of any faith.
West Africa is a territory of tribes and the ship is a tribe unto itself. There's no help out here.
The crew drills for every emergency. It's a tight community. Many stay for years.
They raise their children in the ship's school, and return to America on vacation. Ali Chandra's been on board four years. Now, she's pregnant but she plans to stay.
Scott Pelley: I wonder do you think of this as a sacrifice that you're making?
Ali Chandra: No. Not at all. There's things I miss from home. I miss strawberries and I miss fresh milk. And I miss my family. Not in that order. You have no idea how awesome this life is. I get to see the world. And I get to take care of incredible people. And why would you wanna live in a house on land? This is way more fun.
Scott Pelley: You met your husband here?
Ali Chandra: I did. Yep. I am one of the Mercy Ships' romances. Not the only one.
Scott Pelley: Are there a lot of those?
Ali Chandra: They call it the Love Boat. Yeah.
Scott Pelley: Who calls it the Love Boat?
Ali Chandra: I know-- a lot of-- any of us who have found our-- our loves here.
She found Phil, a ship's electrician. Gary Parker met his wife, Susan, onboard. And they've raised Wesley and Carys in a 630 square foot cabin. Susan found out how long they were staying, on TV.
Susan Parker: Somebody had asked him the question, "How long do you plan to be here?" And Gary looked straight in the camera and he said, "I hope for the rest of my life." And we looked at each other and sucked in our breath. And we started a journey of adjusting our expectations from that point.
Scott Pelley: The first time you saw him after you saw the documentary, did you say--
Susan Parker: Yeah, I did. And he said, "You never asked."
Scott Pelley: You never asked...
The only life the kids have known makes them strangers back home.
Susan Parker: A couple of years ago we were in Santa Barbara visiting Gary's mom. And, I gave Carys a letter and I said, "Would you go down and mail this for me?" And she was gone for about 20 minutes. And when she came back she said, "I don't know what a mailbox looks like. And I thought, okay, we're in trouble here.
Scott Pelley: And today you do not wish you were somewhere else.
Susan Parker: No, you know there's nothing wrong with living at home, but I don't think it's what we're supposed to do.
That conviction tends to be renewed with every life that is changed. The quickest change we saw came in the patients who were slowest up the gangway, each step taken on trust. They're blind. Cataracts. The surgery takes half an hour. Cataract out. New lens in. Some of them had been blind for decades now they can see in 24 hours. A cause for celebration.
The maxillofacial patients are years from healing completely. This was Marta before her jaw was replaced. And this is how she looked after surgery. The tumor is gone; it won't grow back. And when the ship returns she'll have cosmetic surgery for the scars.
Africa Mercy spent five months in this port. 281 tumors removed, 34 cleft palates made whole, and 794 blind patients returned to sight. With that Africa Mercy threw off her bonds to Togo and steamed for another desperate point on the African coast.
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