Working on a ship, off the west coast of Africa, certainly qualifies as an adventure.
Emmanuel Essah, CBET, a biomedical technician, started his experience on the hospital ship Africa Mercy as an IT professional. Essah is just one member of a 400-person crew from 40 nations. The Africa Mercy, part of the Mercy Ships organization, was built in 1980 in Denmark and measures 152 meters in length. It can accommodate a crew of 474.
Essah is not unfamiliar with the environment where he is now working. He was living on the west coast of Africa in the country of Benin, sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, when he found out about the Mercy Ships organization.
“One of my church members was going to a Bible school called the Bible Institute of Benin. He is a business man whom I did some translation work for in the past,” Essah says.
“He was told at the Bible school that Mercy Ships was coming to Benin and they would need translators. Immediately, he contacted me and told me about the opportunity. First, I did not want to apply. But my mum encouraged me to. I applied and became one the translators with the dental clinic at Mercy Ships. I served in Benin field service in 2009 and in Togo field service in 2010. I joined the ship in 2011 as a crew member when the ship was in Sierra Leone,” he adds.
Mercy Ships attempts to fill a need created by the estimated 5 billion people who do not have access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia care. The organization describes their mission in this way:
“Mercy Ships, an international faith-based organization, has a mission to increase access to healthcare throughout the world through the deployment of the world’s largest, private hospital ship, the Africa Mercy. Mercy Ships works with host nations to strengthen the local healthcare system, while serving the dire and immediate needs of the host country.”
The CBS show “60 Minutes” has featured the Africa Mercy , and in March, Dana Perino, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, made her second visit to the ship and featured the visit on the Fox show “The Five.” The Africa Mercy had been docked on the coast of the Republic of Benin at the time.
Serving Those in Need
Essah’s introduction to living on the Africa Mercy wasn’t initially as a biomed. It was after being onboard for a couple of years that he took steps to enter the HTM world.
“I was serving as an IT Support Specialist on-board the ship from 2011 till 2013. During these years, I had the privilege of serving in the Advance Team for two countries to prepare for the ship’s arrival to Togo in 2012 and to Guinea in 2013,” Essah says.
“In fall 2013, Mercy Ships sponsored me to go and do training in biomedical equipment technology at MediSend International in Dallas, Texas. I returned in January 2014 as a certified biomedical technician. Since then, I have been serving in the hospital as one of the biomedical technicians on-board,” he adds.
The MediSend International training was just what Essah needed. He describes it as an “intensive program.”
“It is a performance-based curriculum of theory and practical training with state-of-art equipment in a professional learning environment,” he says. “During that training, I acquired the skills to install, repair, maintain, calibrate and properly operate life-saving biomedical equipment. At the end of the training, I graduated valedictorian of my class and returned to the ship where I serve as one of the biomedical technicians.”
On board, Essah is joined by two HTM colleagues; Tony Royston, senior biomed technician from the UK, and Larry Hewitt, a biomed technician from Canada.
Working on a hospital ship does come with certain challenges. Essah says that keeping a supply of parts handy is not really an option.
“Being a biomed on a hospital ship is challenging in a number of ways. First, a ship is not a traditional hospital so the space you have for spare parts and spare equipment is limited on a ship compared to a traditional hospital,” he says.
“You have some spare parts in storage, but you just can’t have everything. When a spare part is needed, but not available in the storage on the ship, we have to order it. You do not get the spare part right away after ordering. You have to wait for a while before the parts get mailed or shipped to wherever the hospital ship is located,” Essah adds.
He also points out that when the ship does leave for a new host country, packing equipment and securing the ship for sail, is part of the job. Things have to get set back up when arriving at the new field service location.
“Mercy Ships also has some land-based clinics such as a dental clinic and an eye clinic. Those clinics also need to pack up at the end of the field service and set up every time we visit a new country,” Essah says.
“During set up, we have to test all of the equipment and make sure it is safe and working properly. For instance when the ship was in Madagascar, before we set up the dental clinic, our biomed team had to inspect the clinic, check the electrical sockets to make sure the wiring was OK, the building grounding system was good, and that we had the right power before we set the equipment up in the clinic,” Essah says.
“After the equipment was set up, we tested all the equipment and made sure it was all working properly and safely before the clinic could start receiving patients for treatment,” he adds.
He says that being away from family is tough, although the ship community becomes like a family. He says holidays are toughest.
“However, the ship forms such a unique community, where love is expressed to anyone who joins as crew member or guest or day crew,” Essah says. “During festive times like Easter or Christmas, festivities are organized in such a unique way that you feel like you are in a family/home.”
In addition to providing medical care, Mercy Ships also provides medical training to the local professionals in the countries where the ship docks. The ship’s biomedical technicians also provide training to local biomeds.
According to Mercy Ships, the biomedical training program aims to enhance the standards and performance of the equipment used in partner hospitals or other health care institutions. To address this, Mercy Ships developed a practical and relevant biomedical training project that will impart knowledge and skills to each participant. This training opportunity includes mentoring and follow-up.
“During the 2016-2017 deployment of the Africa Mercy to Benin, Mercy Ships will offer basic training in biomedical engineering,” Essah says.” This training aims to improve health care in one district hospital, particularly in the standard biomedical engineering services, to an acceptable level of safety.”
“To be able to obtain the relevant manuals for each technician, facilitators will assess the equipment used at local hospitals, the manufacturer and the model of the equipment. At the end of the training, Mercy Ships will give participants selected service manuals on a USB stick,” he adds.
A Call to Volunteer
Essah has some advice for other biomeds who might hear the call for this kind of service.
“It is an amazing experience to be part of such a unique organization where you can serve and be part of the transformation that is happening every day in the lives of the people we serve,” he says.
“You can use your God-given skills and your talents in the biomedical engineering field to bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor. You will get to befriend patients that we serve. Even though I do not have direct interaction with patients in my day-to-day job, the equipment that I repair or maintain is used to treat the patients. Whether it’s for monitoring, diagnosis, etcetera,” Essah says.
“Therefore, as a biomedical technician, when you serve with Mercy Ships, you will get to be part of the transformation that is happening in the patients’ lives by making sure the equipment used on them is safe and working properly. I see it is as such a joy and privilege to be able to contribute my time and talents to such a worthy cause,” he adds.
Emmanuel Essah is making a real difference in the lives of his fellow Africans and bringing his skill set to the benefit of those who need medical intervention desperately.
If you are interested in volunteering your time and skills to Mercy Ships, you can learn about opportunities online at www.mercyships.org/volunteer
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