Karen Binns of the eye team. Credit: Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net for Mercy Ships
Karen Binns of the eye team. Credit: Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net for Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships: Coming to their rescue in Africa

GIANT tumours growing out of people's heads, cataracts, childbirth injuries, deformities and the bubonic plague.

These are just some of the afflictions treated by nurses such as Buderim resident Karen Binns, one of 1250 professional Mercy Ships volunteers to travel to Sub-Saharan Africa every year.

In the new year, Ms Binns will join the world's largest independent hospital ship, Africa Mercy, at the island country of Madagascar, where 92% of the population live in poverty.

A nurse of more than 30 years' experience, Ms Binns has volunteered her time over four consecutive years in Sierra Leone, Togo, Guinea, and the Republic of Congo.

She had been looking for a nursing role overseas when she came across Mercy Ships Australia in 2009.

"You have to jump in with both feet and see how you go," she said.

"It was such a rewarding experience that I will be going on my fifth trip at the end of February."

Asked how she would describe the experience, she said it was confronting.

"It's quite overwhelming sometimes to see the type of condition people are turning up to the ship for treatment for," she said.

People who had benign tumours growing for years or decades, often on their face, would receive the first medical treatment in their lifetime at the ship.

"People have often been shunned or (hidden) away or thought to be cursed because there's no understanding of what's behind that in the way that we understand health," she said.

As benign facial tumours can eventually kill a person through suffocation, surgery performed on the ship saves lives.

Ms Binns said it was a humbling and rewarding experience.

"It quite blows you away," she said.

Hillcrest woman Elza Varga has returned after volunteering for 10 months on a Mercy Ship in Africa. Photo:Contributed Michelle Murrey
Hillcrest woman Elza Varga has returned after volunteering for 10 months on a Mercy Ship in Africa. Photo:Contributed Michelle Murrey Michelle Murrey

The annual missions also help local communities deal with a severe lack of medical resources through education and sustainable development, says Mercy Ships Australia managing director Alan Burrell.

The organisation's headquarters moved from Newcastle, New South Wales, to Caloundra 11 years ago.

Mr Burrell said while surgical procedures were the focus of Mercy Ships' work, the bubonic plague had infected 150 people in Madagascar this year and recently reached the capital city of Antananarivo.

Early intervention and antibiotics such as those administered by his professionals could stem its spread, he said.

"I think the key with our team is we don't only send surgeons over there, but we also send dentists and health care trainers over there. And of course we need cooks and engineers and agriculturalists as well," he said.

Volunteers raise all their own funds to join the ship - air fares, crew fees and expenses.

"It's so the monies that are raised for mercy ships can go directly to the services they provide," Ms Binns said.



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