Life-changing surgery and medical care provided by the Christian-based charity, Mercy Ships is the topic of an illustrated talk by Whanganui dentist, Hadleigh Reid, 19 November, at Sarjeant on the Quay.

A succession of Mercy Ships' floating hospitals has provided a wide range of free medical services to developing countries since the organisation was founded in 1978.

Dr Reid recently worked on the current ship, MV Africa Mercy, spending a month in Cameroon where he provided dental care to the local population. But he says that was just a small part of a service that makes an enormous difference to the lives of people in countries where health care is inaccessible to many.

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This was the third time that Dr Reid had volunteered with Mercy Ships, having previously worked in the Congo and Benin, and he has seen miraculous changes wrought in the lives of people with conditions rarely seen in New Zealand and other western countries. While he says that what he does is almost routine dental care, he is impressed by the work of other skilled health care staff on the ship.

He said that in New Zealand most conditions would never reach the severity of those he encounters in developing countries. "Maxillo-facial and oral surgeons do amazingly significant work" Dr Reid said, "patients come in with massive five to 10 kg tumours in their jaws. The surgeons cut out the tumour and the jaw bone and replace it with a titanium jaw. They also treat teenagers and adults with cleft palates, a condition that would be repaired in New Zealand at a much younger age. Often these people are rejected by society so the operation enables them to be reintegrated into their community".

Dr Reid was impressed by the case of a 12 year old girl who had a top jaw tumour as large as a water melon that had pushed her eye out. The tumour was caused by the cells that produce dental enamel. An oral surgeon removed the tumour and to reconstruct her jaw, used other facial muscles and a bone graft from her rib or hip, successfully repositioning her eye. "We don't get these things in New Zealand because we discover them very early."

"It's quite unpleasant and confronting and also sad but the awesome thing is that the Mercy ship maxillo-facial surgeons can do something about it".

He has also witnessed women with complications such as fistulas following childbirth.

These women may be rejected by their husband and the village. Fistulas can very often be repaired in the hospital facilities on board. "On the Mercy ship, they have a dress ceremony where they get the women new dresses and have a bit of a party when they've recovered".

Dr Reid looks on his participation as a working holiday; volunteers pay their way and contribute their skills to a less advantaged community.

The Mercy Ship operates like a city with essential services that include schools, tradespeople, medical professionals and supporting occupations such as hospitality, administration and technicians, so there are many opportunities for people to volunteer.

He said one maxilla-facial surgeon has been on board for 30 years. Many volunteers from Europe come for just 2 weeks, while some nurses stay for the entire field service of 10 months.

There are several operating theatres on board the Africa Mercy, which was originally an old Danish railway ferry. The first purpose-designed and built Mercy ship is currently under construction in China. Like its predecessors the new ship will continue to implement the Mercy Ships' motto "helping the world's forgotten poor."

Dental Assistant Michaela Groschke at work.
Dental Assistant Michaela Groschke at work.

Do you have a story about the Sarjeant Gallery that you would like to share? If so, contact Jaki Arthur on 06 349 3268, or at jaki.arthur@sarjeant.org.nz. To learn more about the gallery redevelopment project, pick up the Help Support Our Sarjeant brochure from Sarjeant on the Quay, 38 Taupo Quay; visit www.sarjeant.org.nz; or contact Jaki.