Paying it forward – bringing medical mercy by ship

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Helping others is at the heart of the medical profession, and Ivan Whitehead takes it very seriously.

The anaesthetic team leader from Kawana Private Hospital has just returned from a six-week stint with international aid organisation Mercy Ships.

He said treating patients in Senegal was a far cry from his comfortable workplace on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, but it was incredibly rewarding.

“This is the second time I’ve worked with Mercy Ships; the first time was back in 2018 when I went to Cameroon,” he said.

“I guess I got into it because I wanted to be able to pay it forward – I have healthy, educated children, and not everyone is lucky enough to have that.”

Mercy Ships deploys hospital ships and volunteers to developing nations, improving the quality of life for people living with the diseases of poverty, disfigurement and disability, through direct medical services and building the capacities of local healthcare systems.

Mr Whitehead said the patients he saw in West Africa were incredibly appreciative.

“The people we see there are just so grateful and there’s so much appreciation for what we do,” he said.

“Yes, our health system is currently under pressure but compared to other places we have it so good in Australia.

“Some people travel for days just to be assessed by the clinical staff on Mercy Ships.”

The state-of-the-art hospital ships carry a crew of 400 volunteers

More than half of the world’s population lives within 160 kilometres of a coastline, meaning Mercy Ships and its crew of 400 volunteers can sail modern hospital ships to directly reach people across the globe who do not have access to safe, affordable medical care.

The ships are state-of-the-art vessels with vital amenities, offering clean water, electricity, and care centres onboard.

“It’s staffed by people from around the world, and despite working in systems that might be completely foreign to what we’re used to, people come together,” Mr Whitehead said.

“We had a three-year-old girl come from Sierra Leone; she had a large tumour on her throat. She arrived on a Saturday, had a scan on the Sunday, and was operated on by Monday.

“There must have been medical staff from half a dozen nations helping this girl, and I was able to speak to her parents and let them know she was going to be okay.

“To see them crying and happy was something that will live with me forever.”

Mr Whitehead said working on Mercy Ships gave him some hope for humanity.

“You can see that we’re trying, we’re putting an effort in,” he said.

He described coming home as a little like returning from outer space.

“After my first trip, I was told by a Melbourne anaesthetist that coming back to the Western world is similar to astronaut re-entry,” Mr Whitehead said.

“It takes a while to get back to normal.

“But the work is incredibly rewarding, and I have the most amazing CEO who supported me in going.”

Mr Whitehead said it was simple for medical staff to volunteer.

“People think you have to be some kind of high-falutin’, super-duper person to go and do this, but I’m just a common anaesthetist assistant and I would encourage anyone to go and volunteer their time,” he said.

“The reward is something you can’t put a price on.”

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