By K. Richard Douglas
There may be one biomed opportunity that is more unique and unusual than most others. It is to work on a hospital ship and adjust to the inimitable peculiarities and challenges that such a role requires of the biomed. With the challenges come rewards.
The Mercy Ships organization assembles volunteers who hail from around the world. This includes the ship’s maritime crew, teachers, health care professionals, electricians, IS professionals, galley staff, photographers, accountants and HTM professionals.
Every year, the permanent staff of the Mercy Ships organization is joined by 1,300 volunteers from over 50 nations. These volunteers stay with the ship for anywhere from two weeks to two years. The organization looks for commitments of at least six months for most positions.
Most of the work is in sub-Saharan western Africa. The ship visits ports where it can dock for extended periods.
The organization operates two floating hospital ships: the Africa Mercy and, the newest ship, the Global Mercy. The Africa Mercy has been serving patients for several years and the Global Mercy is nearing completion.
The organization’s mission states, “We follow the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus, bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor.” The group brings the capacity for much-needed surgeries to people who would otherwise not have access to that life-changing opportunity.
The organization has had a positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands. Mercy Ships also trains health care workers, allowing Africa to add to its workforce of capable health professionals.
Mercy Ships provides surgery in the following specialties: maxillofacial, head and neck, general, orthopedic, reconstructive plastics, pediatrics, ophthalmic and women’s health.
The Africa Mercy includes five operating theatres, recovery, intensive care and low dependency wards – totaling 80 patient beds. It has an onboard surgical capacity for 7,000 interventions per year. Medical equipment includes a CT scan, X-ray, laboratory services and equipment for remote diagnosis. For data transmission, the ship offers an onboard satellite communication system which can transmit diagnoses and other data.
The organization’s newest and largest hospital ship is the Global Mercy, which will see service in the near future.
The 174-meter, 37,000-ton ship will have six operating rooms and house over 600 volunteers from around the globe representing many disciplines including surgeons, maritime crew, cooks, teachers, electricians, the host staff and more. The ship will also feature a 682-seat auditorium, student academy, gymnasium, pool, café, shop and library – all of which have been designed to accommodate up to 950 crew onboard when docked in port.
Where there is medical equipment, there are biomeds. With no realistic access to OEM service providers, the Mercy Ships organization depends on biomed volunteers to plan an important role on their ships.
“For the Africa Mercy, we have a team of one biomedical technician and one senior biomedical technician. The biomed team is responsible for commissioning new medical equipment, preventive and corrective maintenance of this equipment, user support and the team also provides input for selecting new equipment,” says Senior Biomedical Technician Guido Kortleven.
He says that the team is responsible for the hospital on board and the off-ship facilities where medical equipment is used (like dental clinic and eye tent).
“We have also one ‘Medical Capacity Building Project Manager – Biomed,’ who is responsible for the training of local biomed in country,” Kortleven says.
He says that soon, another team will be added for the Global Mercy.
“This team has two biomedical technicians and one senior biomedical technician. The scope will be the same as for the team on the Africa Mercy,” he says.
“We also have support for two people on the International Support Center who are responsible for procurement and projects (like the new ship),” Kortleven adds.
Working on a ship, away from suppliers, can present some challenges and that results in some stories of achievement.
“Because of the remote locations where the ship is operating, we have no or very limited access to support from service companies. Therefore, the ship has no service contracts for the medical equipment. We have some companies coming to the ship to perform preventive maintenance while it is in the Canaries for the annual maintenance, but they are not managed by a service contract,” Kortleven says.
Kortleven says that every day there is a unique story on board of the Africa Mercy.
“There are so many stories to tell,” he says.
“A few years ago, our biomeds on board had to replace the tube of the CT scanner. It took over a week to get it airfreighted to the ship. Within four hours after it arrived, the biomed had the tube replaced and we were able to perform diagnostic activities again,” Kortleven says.
“Last year, we had an issue with the water quality in the country where we were. The system which produces DI water for the instrument cleaning had some issues (not enough filter media, some parts were reversed). Together with the hard water we encountered the problem was that halfway through the field service, the filter material was depleted,” Kortleven says.
He says this required the biomeds to troubleshoot a system they didn’t have much experience with.
“Because of this, we ordered a water quality meter, did some calculations and wrote some instructions. In the future we are better able to predict when the filter material is depleted, so now we can work pro-actively instead of reactively,” Kortleven adds.
He says that there are some special projects that are unique to a hospital ship and the eventual challenge of staffing biomeds for the larger ship, once it is ready to be put into service.
“Our special projects are, for example, the commissioning of new equipment (replacement of washers in the CSSD department is different on a ship than in a land-base hospital),” Kortleven explains.
“Also, a very big and special project is the commissioning of the Global Mercy. We need 15 biomeds for a period of three months or more,” he adds.
The organization states it best. “Each year, 16.9 million people die due to lack of access to surgical care. Mercy Ships is on a mission to help the people behind this staggering statistic,” the Mercy Ships website states.
“With 50 percent of the world’s population living near a coast, our hospital ships are able to provide a safe surgical environment that can reach the most people along the shores of Africa’s developing nations. By providing life-saving surgery and life-changing medical training, we help strengthen Africa’s fragile health care systems while leaving a lasting legacy,” the organization explains.
Some of the requirements Mercy Ships looks for in a biomed volunteer include:
For biomeds who are willing to take on the challenge of a unique experience, the rewards are great.
Helping to bring life-changing surgery to people in remote parts of the world is a noble calling and a tremendous application of HTM skills.
For information about how to volunteer with Mercy Ships, visit https://opportunities.mercyships.org/opportunities-listings/?fwp_sectors=hospital-support-services.
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