The love boat

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Outdoor furniture stacked in the empty pool, two-minute showers and share accommodation for six in a 2m x 3m cabin. Is this the cruise ship from hell? No, it’s from the heavenly side of cruising and there’s a waiting list to get onboard.

In port the excursions are in reverse – from shore to ship. One excursionist is Ellison, 7. His legs are twisted like pretzels from the knees down. He lives under a bridge and begs to support himself and his disabled grandmother.

After a day surrounded by scary people with large machines called x-rays, Ellison wants to leave. There is only one language that will convince him to stay, so that one day soon he might be able to run and walk. Australian nurse Lynne White knows what that is.

“I go and sit with him and just put my arms around him. After dinner as night closes, tears well up in his eyes and Ruth, my translator, tells me that Ellison wants to ‘go home’ back to the bridge,” Lynne wrote in her diary blog that night.

“A lot of people talk to Ellison to no avail. I am listening quietly, but in my mind, regardless of race, I don’t think it’s too beneficial to negotiate with seven-year-olds for long lengths of time. Maternal instinct tells me there is only one answer and that is always DISTRACTION!”

And so Ellison is revealed as a master builder with a stacking game, and after 100 games he is laughing uproariously. He goes to sleep clutching Lynne’s koala hand puppet as she sings to him.

For Ellison this is the first day of a journey that will, among many other things, make him the hero of a documentary film soon to be screened on SBS.

It was Lynne’s first day at work on Africa Mercy of the Mercy Ships charity, which operates medical ships to the world’s poorest. The ship’s doctors and nurses deal with a range of disfiguring and crippling orthopaedic deformities, gross facial tumours, watermelon-sized goitres and inguinal hernias so large, patients carry them on a wheelbarrow. In many cases, facial tumours have grown so large they are leading to starvation and suffocation.

Lynne, 53, from Sydney, lived and worked for two months on the Africa Mercy in 2012, while it was docked in Guinea. And despite the undeniable discomfort of living in cramped quarters and the sadness and tears that are as inevitable as the joys of seeing patients given a normal life again, she volunteered again this year, this time for the Congo. But there was already a full quota of nurse volunteers.

Volunteering on a Mercy ship is not for everyone, according to Lynne.

“You need to be quite resilient and assimilate quickly,” she says. Many volunteers are young and Lynne found herself lending them a lot of emotional support, earning herself the nickname Mercy Mama from younger crew members, struggling at times with the challenges of six women, all on different shifts, sharing three bunks, one toilet and a shower.

“It’s character building stuff and it’s tricky, but no sacrifice compared to the suffering down the gangway outside.”

Most, but not all, volunteers are committed Christians, but all shared one aim, to serve others before self.

“My passion and heart has always been for Africa, don’t ask me why, there are many in great need everywhere. I think God just wires you to lend yourself to a particular group,” Lynne says. “The African people that we loved and tended were blown away that we would touch and care for them so freely.”

On her third day at an onshore screening site Lynne realised there would be no help for some, like Aduba, 16.

“His tummy hurts and he says his anus is not completely open … his abdomen feels rigid on both sides.”

Aduba’s father offers to work 24/7 on the ship in exchange for help for his son. “Somehow I have to get him to understand that the ship does not have the right equipment to help. My heart was breaking for them. I’m afraid that as things stand Aduba will eventually die. But this child could definitely be helped in the first world.”

Back on board to air conditioning and toilets that flush, Ellison, has revealed his real name is YaYa. His grandmother and uncle have given consent for surgery on his legs and while he awaits surgery he earns yet another name, The Little General, giving orders as he hops along behind Nick the ortho tech, holding the saw between cuts as Nick removes casts from other children.

A few days before Lynne leaves Africa Mercy, YaYa is back on her ward.

“He is now upright, has special boots Velcro-strapped on and is weight bearing through his legs, leaning against a stool with a game perched on the top. By the time we have played the game he has stood for 15 minutes. I have really been blessed to see this progress before I leave. It will be a very long-term recovery,” Lynne reported in one of her final blogs.

“I just loved him so much and so did everyone on board,” Lynne told The Lamp. “He is highly intelligent and anxious to learn. If it had been possible and in his best interests I would have taken him home with me.

“I have been able to arrange with a missionary couple to watch over him and organise schooling for him and I will fund the cost for as long as he needs,” Lynne said. “I can’t wait to see him again on film and hear his gruff voice, he truly has a piece of my heart.”

Aboard the Mercy Ship

A variety of long and short-term, onboard volunteer positions are available on Africa Mercy. They include housekeeping, galley, deck crew, doctors and nurses. Volunteers pay their own travel costs to and from the ships and from $US700 room and board for up to three months. For more visit www.mercyships.org.au or call 1300 739 899. The documentary The Surgery Ship was scheduled to screen on SBS on December 10.