Trial Runs

February 27, 2010

Week 1. Clinics: 4. Total crowd numbers: 3,500. Total amount of people screened: 1,400. Eye surgeries scheduled: 199.

My aim is to let you know a lot about little bits, so that instead of feeling like you are looking at a sketch of what I do and see, you feel that you are in the midst of it, if only for short moments. And I would also like to tell you much about the human aspect of this ministry, which is the why of it all. But I will do neither in this post, because the clinic logistics are exciting and fascinating and worth a mention. (And because that’s my job.)

Clinic Day 1: Smooth sailing. An orderly line waits outside heavy gates, opened and shut by the conservative judgements of 2 Togolese security guards. Dr. Glenn, the ship’s chief eye surgeon, joins us for the day in order to train two of our ophthamologists in criteria for appropriate selection of cataract patients. A warm introduction to the field.

Clinic Day 2: And then there was Tuesday. The Assemblies of God church sits right on a busy road. Driving in, the first sight is the mass of people filling the church grounds. They watch our two cars park and shuffle towards us en masse. We walk into the church, and–surprise!–a few hundred loitering around in the sanctuary! Thoughts swirl, we turn to each other, dumbfounded. We agree to try to make it work, and if things get sticky, we will pack up and leave. It takes twenty minutes of shooing, but eventually everyone goes outdoors, and now there is some breathing room to pull out chairs, tables, medical equipment. The first few patients are screened, sent to doctors, scheduled for surgery. Arms and heads reach through the doors and windows, all made of widely spaced metal bars. Bodies push at every door, and the hinges groan under their weight. You can tell when things begin to feel out of hand–when the feel of a group changes, when the decibel level rises a bit, when the simmer looks like it wants to turn into a boil–and that’s when it is time to act. Ok, call for backup. The ship’s security department deploys a “surge team,” which arrives to take over crowd control. Assert authority over the process. Move people away from the doors. The waiting crowd now sees patients flowing through, and tensions relax.

Day 3: Ready for a chaotic repeat of Tuesday (we go to the same church on Thursdays), my spirits soar as we round the corner and see a thousand people, yes–but all waiting calmly, some seated in plastic chairs, a good fifty yards from the church building. Order in the chaos–what a relief! Part of our team has arrived early to sort people into relevant groups (children, elderly, men, women) and distribute numbers. Two ship security personnel monitor the fronts of the lines. Each day and church layout poses different issues, so each day we have utilized different crowd control procedures. Today’s method works beautifully! The only tiff occurs when we announce “fini” and a group eager to be seen rushes the church and breaks in the door. Still, I gladly dub today a success. Don’t worry, we put the door back on its hinges. =)

There was a fourth clinic, but I think the preceding excitement is sufficient to both quell your curiosity and send me straight to bed. Goodnight!


A whopper of a prayer request

February 21, 2010

As I recently told a friend through email, it is in situations such as this, when the task looks large and I feel small, that I truly appreciate intercessory prayer. So, thank you for praying!

Tomorrow we will hold our first eye clinic. The patients will be many, and the Mercy Ships staff will be few. We have picked over the procedure in theory, but I can’t imagine what the day holds! Please pray…

…that those whom we can help will be brought to us

…for peaceful crowds

…for coherence within our team

…for endurance through the heat

…that we will communicate with one another in love and patience

…and for safety.

Thank you

Hospital Open House

February 21, 2010

The ORs are scrubbed, the wards made up, and perched atop every pediatric bed is a handmade teddy bear. Surgeries begin next Thursday. But before the hospital doors are sealed, the young and the not-so-young light up the halls in one final Hoorah!

Surgeons-in-training work on a patient, one well-behaved gorilla


Alex mastering the fistula beanbag toss

Learning to suture. Dr. Gary says my next promotion will be to the OR, so give it a month or two and expect to see "Lead Surgeon" behind my name 😉

Race to feed your dummy!

Never fear--your EMTs have arrived!

And now the work begins…


February 16, 2010

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
The priest delivered these words (albeit in French) from the pulpit as Sunday’s gospel reading. And I fidgeted. A glaringly white island in a sea of ebony. A rich, satiated, happy person, in the midst of those who are poor, often hungry, and have much over which to weep. Uggh. In American churches, most explanations of this passage reassure us that rich doesn’t really mean just having a lot of money, and poor means something different than living with very little. But I wonder what you say to a crowd that doesn’t require this convincing? I wish I could have understood the homily, delivered to the attentive ears of these blessed people.

“Yova! Yova!”

February 14, 2010

I am sure that the next few months hold some sad days, but Friday was not one of them. At the break of dawn, we packed into a car and, for the first time, headed out of the port gates into the reality of Togo. Guided by Joan, an Advance Team member who has been in Togo setting things up since November, we scouted out our four eye field clinics. Each clinic is within a church complex, and it’s quite an ecumenical mix: one Presbyterian, one Assemblies of God, and two Catholic(!!). Here are a few favorite scenes from the day:

Presbyterian Church (Monday clinic): Pulling our safari-equipped Land Rover into the compound, giggles and shouts greet us from around the corner, followed by the tiny faces producing them. A pack of thirty 3 year-olds, each with button-up shirts or sun dresses made from the same red and white checked cotton, race towards us in a scuffle of sandals pitter-pattering on sandy concrete. What joy! As we tour the church, a stout Madame gathers up her chickadees for some mid-morning exercise. She taps a small drum with a stick, and with each metronomic beat, the children first run, then jump, then frog-hop back and forth across the sand, all the while sneaking the most beautiful smiles in our direction.

Missionaries of Jesus (Friday clinic): Father Victor sits with a pleasantly rotund belly and every few minutes bursts out in a wonderfully cherubic laugh. He has generously made almost the entire facility available for our use, including a tidy break room and the Adoration chapel. The long table in the rectory is adorned with dishes atop a pressed table cloth, delicately prepared for morning tea. We pour dry peanuts and crunchy tubular cookies out of glass bottles, and Father Victor tells us about the church and its seminary. The chapel is beautiful, but far too small for weekend services. At 7:00 every Sunday morning, more than one thousand people pour in for Mass, which is celebrated outside in the open air. I glance at Lauren and can tell she has the same thought: We’ve found a church!

Catholic Cathedral (other Friday clinic): Behind the chapel are huge, shaded sports fields which we will use as a waiting area for the hundreds of patients seeking help each day from the clinic. Rounding the corner to survey the space, we pass by a primary school classroom. One voice rings out, quickly gathering momentum from tens of other voices joining it: “Yova! Yova!” (i.e. “White person! White person!”) Arms poke through the latticed concrete wall, each with fingers waving and grasping. Handshakes all around, and then we are off, leaving the poor teacher with a room full of chanting students.


February 11, 2010

After ten days of aquatic pilgrimage, we have arrived in Togo! How I wish that each of you could have joined me on the deck as the expansive ocean gave way to a thin strip of land in the distance, and slowly to a clearer and clearer scene of arms reaching above heads and feet jumping off the ground, the most wonderful celebration! Photos will communicate the joy much better than can my limited selection of adjectives. Fill in the missing senses with exhuberant music, uninhibited dancing, and gratitude on both ends. What an experience: to rejoice at seeing strangers, and to know that they rejoice, too!

Pairs of dolphins ushering us into the harbor

Theo with his handmade Togo flag, ready to greet our celebrants on shore

The port's pilot successfully boards the Africa Mercy to guide us in


Every evening is spent watching the sunset from the bow, and every evening the temperature is a few degrees higher than it was the day before. We’ve made the final turn towards Togo. Even the whales can tell we are close to the equator: Instead of boasting with huge jumps and flirty tail pats, all they do here is sleep! We plaster ourselves to the ship’s windows, only to see a fin floating up and down with the waves.

But it’s not just the temperature that makes this part of the coast different. Long past the safe waters of the Canaries, the M/V Africa Mercy has now entered an area where no passing ship can be trusted! Ok, so that’s an exaggeration, but we still get to do *Pirate Watch*! All night every night, from now until we reach Togo, volunteers man the top deck and scan the waters for people in canoes or small rowboats. East African pirates are fairly sophisticated, employing a “mothership” that sends out multiple rowboats when they spot a target. Fortunately for us, West African pirates are still novices, and incidents of piracy in these waters are almost nonexistant. Laura and I assumed watch last night from 1900-2100 hours, outfitted with night vision binoculars and radios to communicate with the bridge. I COULD tell you that we only spotted one (friendly) vessel, but that wouldn’t be too interesting. When I am old and gray, expect to hear a story involving swords and planks and other things that make grandchildren’s eyes go wide.

What do you do with a weekend on a boat? Here’s what we figured out:
A ship-wide scavenger hunt to celebrate Maggie’s 9th birthday…

The team: Linda, Sarah, Lauren, Libby, Naomi, Alana

Team captain Libby takes a break from the hunt. Those swings are irresistible!

The Dock Sock Open 2010…

Our sock golf balls

Perfecting the swing

Announcing the sock golf champions

…and hanging out in the bridge!

Officer Louie explains the radar system

Checking out the view

Don't worry, Mom, I didn't go any further =)

Ophthamology 101

February 5, 2010

The Eye Field Team consists of 3 people: my boss Bob, Lauren, and myself. Bob’s total years of ophthamology experience: 40+. Lauren’s and mine total combined years of ophthamology experience: 0. Actually, I should say 2 days, because we started training this morning! My position as the coordinator of the team places me in more of an organizational/managerial role, but Bob is eager for all of us to share in the medical work, and I am eager that he is eager. Today we practiced measuring visual acuity, which meant slapping vision charts up on the wall of the dining room and testing each other’s ability to discern which way the E is pointing in decreasing sizes down the page. (Usually charts with varying letters are used, but literacy is not something to assume in West Africa.) This task will be taught to our 7 translators, and they will perform the testing in the field clinics. Next up: ophthalmoscopes!

Laura (pediatric ward RN), Alana, & Sarah (ophthalmic peri-op RN)

And, for your viewing pleasure, three lovely ladies sporting the latest in lifejacket fashion! Today was our second set of emergency drills, meaning what to do if a fire/leak gets so out of hand that we must abandon ship. One surprising bit of boat trivia: since large vessels take a significant amount of time to actually sink, the shrieking alarm does not mean run to the top deck as fast as your sea legs can carry you. Rather, you are to first descend into the ship’s bowels to your cabin to retrieve a pre-packed “emergency bag,” which should include sunscreen, water, a hat, a change of clothing, and something to keep yourself occupied, like a book. After all, sitting in a lifeboat for days and days would make anyone a little bored.

Where am I?

February 3, 2010

That’s what I’d like to know! For security reasons, we are not told our exact coordinates. Too much information leaking out through blogs and emails could help unwelcome guests (aargh, matey!) to track our location. Don’t worry, this is not a big concern, but it’s best not to take chances.

Below is a sketch of our route. Judging by the days we have been at sea (4), my best guess is that we are somewhere off the coast of Senegal (yellow dot). Who knows? All I see is water and sky!