“Before coming to Mercy Ships, I had never heard of vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), or obstetric fistula,” says Jasmin Biddell, paediatric nurse at Brisbane’s Mater hospital.
In 2012, Biddell worked as screening coordinator for the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships’ huge hospital ship dedicated to caring for the poorest of the African people. Every screening day, thousands of people line up, waiting for a doctor to check them and authorise treatment for their health condition.
“I remember a bunch of women who arrived together late one evening,” says Biddell. “They’d been crammed in a van all day, travelling to the ship. They were excited to be there, but you could tell there was some reservation. They were looking at the gangway nervously, as if they were thinking, ‘You want me to walk up there?’ ”
These women were coming for obstetric fistula surgery, one of many surgical and medical procedures performed on the Africa Mercy. Obstetric fistula is a serious complication of obstructed childbirth, affecting millions of women, nearly all of them in the poorest countries of the world where good quality, affordable maternal care is simply not available. “It is both preventable and treatable, and doesn’t even exist in the West,” says Biddell.
Biddell later worked on the fistula ward. “The women were always quiet and nervous for the first few days … taking it all in. But before long, they were their own community and the VVF ward was a riot. It’s comforting to these women to know they’re not the only ones suffering from this condition.”
“When I met the women, I never imagined they would both break and capture my heart all at once. It is honestly a privilege to work on this ship.”
About Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships is a global charity established in 1978 to provide free care to the world’s poorest people, mostly in West African nations. Their current flagship, the Africa Mercy, provides about 7000 surgical procedures annually, plus many medical services. Since 2003, Mercy Ships’ surgeons have performed over 3000 fistula procedures. 13 Each fistula surgery costs about AU$500 or NZ$550.
The organisation is active on land, as well as on board the ship. Volunteers have treated over 539,000 patients in mobile medical and dental clinics set up in the communities near ports where the hospital ship has docked. They have also have trained more than 29,400 local medical professionals in areas of specialisation, including anaesthesiology, midwifery, sterilization and surgery. mercyships.org