We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 18) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Douala, Cameroon, Central Africa on the M/V Africa Mercy, the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, through Mercy Ships International. God has called us on a journey that has been many years in the making. For this season we call Africa home, as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Confessions of an Escort

I wrote this blog post the evening of the day I went to screening, back in early September but somehow kept not getting around to posting it. Since our screening has recently wrapped up for Benin and plans are full steam ahead for screening in Cameroon, our next port of call, I thought it was timely to post it now. It also helps me to feel gratitude which I will confess I often find hard at this time of the year, on the ship. This is our fifth Christmas on the ship (in a row) and I am feeling weary. I want to embrace all the traditions of Christmas on board, knowing that one day I will pine for them, but I find myself wishing I was home (my other home) within a familiar culture and with my family. But as I re-read my post I am brought to my knees and not because I cannot walk because my limbs are too twisted, but by how lucky I really have it!! I am blessed beyond measure. 
Get ready to be broken.....
It was the lady crawling on her hand and knees that was my undoing. I felt the tears prick behind my eyes and an uncomfortable lump forming in my throat. “I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it right in front of her”! I watched her crawl up to the screening nurse, a grown women reduced to the position of a toddler. She stared up expectantly into the compassionate eyes of the nurse as she communicated, through the translator, that we could not help her. With a stoic look on her face, the woman, stood as tall as she could on her swollen and calloused knees and hobbled off before falling back down to her hands, back to her crawling position and began the slow, painful crawl, in the dirt to the exit. I have seen a lot in my time in Africa but I found out on that day, that I still have not seen everything.

This is screening. Finding out who we can treat and how many we can fit in the surgical schedule, shuffling through 11,000 people over three weeks. I spent one day at the screening site, a large local school, working as a patient escort, guiding patients to the exit or onto further screening. Our screening and security team were there for three weeks! Can you imagine being the one who takes away a person’s very last hope for a “normal” life or perhaps even life at all? Close your eyes and imagine your feet aching to the bone, fatigue both physical and emotional like you have never felt before and crushing someone’s spirit with a few words, over and over and over again.

Watching the hope slip away from a person eyes and body is visibly perceivable. Their body slumps over, their eyes are downcast, some with tears forming, some begging for one last chance, their feet shuffle. It is the look of hope shattered. I hear her voice and see the pain in her eyes as she looks directly into mine, “Please can’t somebody help me” as she clutches her deformed and twisted hand, the hand that has to carry her children, the hand  that needs to help her to earn a living to feed her family. I listen as her quite tears turn to sobs as I direct her to the exit.

As I stood at my first post, with no medical background, just my years of attending medical screenings, my mind begins to pre-screen. I already know who is going to be sent to the right for yes and to the left for no. I know the ortho schedule is full and my heart breaks for the literally dozens of kids I see with their crooked legs making their way slowly through the snaking line, I see the mamas untying their babies off their backs, their babies legs twisted, adults who have lived a lifetime with contorted limbs and I know that very soon, their hope will be destroyed and I can hardly stand it.

But sometimes, between dozens of “No’s” there is a “Yes, we may be able to help you”! Escorting a patient who has been told they can move on in the screening is a very different experience than being on the exit. A shy glint of joy, mixed with subtle disbelief, reflects from their features, as if they cannot believe that they could possibly be free from their physical burden.

This is why we are here. We cannot be all things to all people and for that we have to trust in God. We have to hold fast to the belief that God has ordained the moment that each and every person, who receives surgery, stands in line on the right day, at the right time and in the right city. Without this belief, our souls could be destroyed, crushed under a mountain of guilt and “what if’s”.

As I left the screening site and returned to the ship, my body exhausted, I reflected on the day, still feeling raw, my emotions simmering under the surface, my thoughts screaming, “Why? What is wrong with our world? Why is a grown woman crawling in the dirt when I was born into a country of fabulous wealth, world class health care and education, clean drinking water and not a crawling woman in sight?” I don’t know the answers to these burning questions and I don’t profess to be any great theologian.

Maybe one day, when I am standing at the feet of Jesus, I can ask him.
We were blessed that an amazing photographer was on board with us during the original screening weeks. You may have seen his work in the link on my post about shipyard. His ability to capture raw emotion and everyday events, in a beautiful way is uncanny. That is why I have so many photos. It was so hard to chose.
(Some images below you may find disturbing.) 

Dawn screening lines.

The barely controlled chaos that is our screening trademark.




So many bow legs.




Some cannot stand in line for so many hours.





A Mama's laughter.....






Mother and daughter both afflicted.






The Academy Junior High and High School also went to screening for a day. This was Jessica's (braids, grey t-shirt) fourth screening and she was a real trooper. I think of how difficult I find it to see such horrific conditions, but our kids handle it so well and with a maturity beyond their peers in their home countries.

Getting the heads up from screening nurse, Kayla and security officer Penny.

Ortho kids














The very first appointment card handed out, a symbol of hope and the reason we get up every day, even if our jobs on board do not directly involve the patients.

People often asked why we do what we do? Looking at these photos and with the image of the crawling women burned into my mind forever, I ask the question why wouldn't we do what we do?


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