By Joyce Mulcahy

They wait. Peering out over the water, they squint to see any sign of the beacon of light. Neither heavy rain, nor thick fog, or stormy sea can keep them from coming, and they do come -by the thousands. They wait on the shores of West Africa for the beacon of light to break through the darkness. Much like the 65 lighthouses off the coast of Maine that have offered safety and guidance to sailors in the most perilous of storms, so too, does the Africa Mercy ship offer refuge for people seeking their godsend from the sea. 

Mercy Ships began in 1978 with founder Don Stephens, and his wife Deyon and their dream and determination to bring hope, healing, and dignity to people in abject poverty. The Africa Mercy is 499 feet long, nearly 17,000 gross tonnage and is the largest civilian hospital ship in the world. According to Don Stephens, “Our ships are state-of-the-art facilities that offer clean water, reliable electricity and care centers. Because over 50% of the population lives within 100 miles of the coast, we’re able to sail a modern hospital ship with a crew of 400 volunteers directly to people who lack access to first-rate medical care.” The former Danish rail ferry underwent major outfitting to become the Africa Mercy, a ship of hope that has been bringing free surgeries and medical services, and mentorship and training to healthcare professionals since 2007. Prior to the Africa Mercy, there were three other Mercy Ships that traveled to Central and South America and the Caribbean basin. Mercy Ships is celebrating its 40th year anniversary this year. Over that time the volunteer crew has performed over 95,000 life-changing or life-saving operations such as cleft lip and palate repair, cataract removal, orthopedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repair. And, they have trained over 42,250 local professionals in their area of expertise (anesthesiology, midwifery, sterilization, orthopedic and reconstructive surgery, leadership). The Mercy Ships have visited over 594 ports and counting.

Ulrich was born with dislocated knees. A life destined to begging and hopelessness was transformed to a young man standing tall looking towards his future. 
©Mercy Ships, credit: Shawn Thompson

The Africa Mercy is the only ship presently in the fleet. It has 8 decks, and at present has 400 volunteer crew with 40 nations represented on board. Each crew member is a volunteer, from the captain to the cook, including the doctors, dentists, nurses, school teachers, bosuns, carpenters, engineers and additional medical and administrative positions. From several weeks to several years, volunteers from all over the world come to the Africa Mercy to donate their skills, gifts and time towards bringing help to the people of West Africa. The ship is currently in Guinea and will remain there until June, 2019. It will then sail to a dry dock port and undergo two months of annually required maintenance before sailing to Senegal for its next 10-month field service.

One volunteer, Tracey Merrill, who hails from South Portland, Maine served on the Africa Mercy as a physical therapist in Madagascar in 2015, Benin in 2016, and Cameroon in 2017. She says, “A few years ago, I decided to quit my full-time job in my hometown of South Portland, Maine, and do some things I have always wanted to do. I had heard about Mercy Ships and decided that would be a great way to serve others. It’s like a mini-United Nations. It is fascinating to meet people from all over the world, and I learn about different cultures, both similarities and differences to my own.” 

Mercy Ships volunteer Physical Therapist Tracey Merrill helps Ulrich learn to balance on his newly straightened legs. 
©Mercy Ships, credit: Shawn Thompson

In Guinea, over 6,000 people lined up to be seen by the Mercy Ships medical screening team in hopes of receiving a surgery card for a free operation onboard the Africa Mercy. Patients suffer from diseases we generally do not see in the United States any longer. Severe facial deformities caused by overgrown tooth enamel, gum disease, or goiters that can grow up to nearly 20lbs. Bow-leggedness from childhood diseases, malnutrition, or ill described pharmaceuticals bring pain, ridicule, shame and thus a lack of education because the child can no longer attend school. Many afflicted adults come to the ship blind from decades of suffering with cataracts, and after a 30 minute surgery, and some days healing, can see again. Children, too, suffer from this disease that causes blindness and in many incidences when parent and child reunite after surgery to see one another clearly, there is much celebration and a firm hope for their future.

Tracey explains from her first-hand experience aboard the ship working in the rehab department that “many have spent years feeling like social outcasts because of their infirmities and deformities. To them, it is a miracle to receive free care in a country that usually can’t provide proper care due to lack of doctors, equipment, or money. I see potential patients by the screening tent — a variety of deformities and problems unlike anything I have ever seen before. I have seen the transformation from ‘how do we even treat that?’ to ‘what an amazing outcome!’ I have seen unbelievable teamwork among the volunteers to serve the patients.”

Perhaps you are a ship captain or other mariner, a receptionist, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, an IT professional, a dental assistant or a chief engineer. Mercy Ships is in need of volunteers. Tracey, the fellow Mainer says it best. “Will YOU dare to go outside your comfort zone and volunteer? It will change your life in so many ways – like myself, you may not take things for granted anymore. I have become more appreciative of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. But I’m also more appreciative of my access to healthcare, my education and even my rights as a woman.”

As the Africa Mercy travels to ports along the coast of West Africa, where people still live on less than $2/day the work never diminishes. The need to provide surgery is always present as 5 billion people lack access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia care when needed. On some days when the people wait, the fog lifts, and the ship docks, the air is thick not with darkness and hopelessness, but with the belief and possibility of a better life. A life where a child can return to school with straight legs and a curved smile, a father can work to support his family able to see again after months, or years of blindness, and a mother horribly scarred after a cooking oil accident, can care for her children again after an operation brought back mobility to her arms and hands.

When the Africa Mercy arrives in port very often the ship and crew are greeted with dancing, music, and celebration. The people of West Africa know about Mercy Ships. They’ve  heard the stories. They’ve seen the evidence of  kindness, healing, hope and faith that have been shared by those who have come aboard before them. They know that when it is their turn to climb the metal gangway there will be healing at no cost to them. That mercy comes free of charge. There is no cost because of individuals that give generously to Mercy Ships.

With the holidays soon approaching and much within our own lives to be thankful for, would you consider supporting Mercy Ships to continue to bring hope, healing, dignity and a future to the people of West Africa? For more information on how you can volunteer, or support Mercy Ships, please visit To contact the Northeast Regional Development Manager for Mercy Ships about individual giving and corporate partnership opportunities, please email Joyce Mulcahy at