Tony Diprose, no stranger to voluntary work in developing countries, recently returned from another round of professional investment including a 17-day tour-of-duty with Mercy Ships in Benin, West Africa.

The Hastings anaesthetist says one thing that struck him on board the Mercy Ship was the wide range of people vital to providing life-transforming surgery for Africa's poor.

"I'd never have thought to say to a plumber, 'Mate, you could make a real difference in healthcare in West Africa!' Some of the crew will never set foot in an operating theatre, but there's a real need on the ship currently for a mechanic, plumbers, maritime crew; they need a carpenter. These people are as much part of our patients' treatment as any of the theatre staff. "

During October Dr Diprose joined the Mercy Ships crew of 480 internationals in their mission to being hope and healing to people in poverty.


The current 10-month field service has the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy docked in Cotonou, Benin where the faith-based charity is providing free specialised surgeries and health care services to the West African nation.

Benin is one of the least developed countries in the world according to the United Nations Human Development Index, with a life expectancy of only 59 years. Access to medical care is beyond the reach of most, with only six doctors for every 100,000 people and a population of 10.6 million.

As a member of the Ministry of Health's response team to national and international disasters Dr Diprose has spent considerable time working in challenging conditions in the Pacific, but this was first service in the extreme conditions of Africa.

"Volunteering for Mercy Ships was multi factorial," he says. "It's part of my sabbatical from the DHB. I enjoy working a bit 'out of the box' so this is a bit of an adventure."

Dr Diprose, who works at Hawke's Bay Fallen Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, provided anaesthesia for extreme surgeries on board the Mercy Ship, and also for the post-operative care of children who suffered extreme burns. Bandage changes for children like Faith would have been unbearable without this level of pain relief.

"Faith is typical of the burns patients that we operated on when I was aboard," he says.

"They had suffered a significant 'third degree' burn in the past. Because it wasn't treated appropriately, the burn would have got infected. As time went on the extreme scarring caused contractions that we just don't see in developed countries because we have plastic surgery and burns units. Fingers or toes become fused together, elbows are locked shut, knees can't straighten, and ankles won't bend.

"The sad fact is that these surgeries aren't really that complicated. For Faith, the ability to walk and wear shoes after her surgery will give her mobility. In a society with no welfare system, the ability to function and find employment means the difference between potential destitution, and dignity."

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