Africa Mercy: Hospital of hope

The world's largest civilian hospital ship travels the west African coast, restoring sight to thousands and bringing smiles to faces once disfigured by tumors

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.

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.

For more information on Mercy Ships, click here

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.

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes