How this Hospital Ship Uses Tech to Deliver Hope and Healing on the High Seas

By John Gorman, Contributor
Photos by Sean Breithaupt

Kadiatou and her mother

Born with a clubfoot and twisted hands, Kadiatou, a young girl from Guinea, always struggled to keep up with her brothers and sisters—simply walking resulted in scrapes and cuts. But last year, at the age of five, Kadiatou and her mother traveled to a ship in the port of Conakry, where onboard, Kadiatou received surgery to correct the conditions that held her back. Now, she’s playing hide-and-seek with her siblings and friends, and her mother rejoices in the fact that her daughter will get an education.

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Kadiatou’s story of hope and healing is just one example of the more than 2.7 million lives Mercy Ships has touched—and in many cases, saved—since the non-profit organization was founded in 1978. Through the use of hospital ships, Mercy Ships brings free surgeries and state-of-the-art medical care to the most impoverished areas in the world.

More than 18 million people die every year due to lack of timely surgical care, according to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery. A great number of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa, where 93 percent of people cannot obtain basic surgical care, according to the College of Surgeons of East, Central, and Southern Africa. It’s to these areas of critical need where Mercy Ships’ current floating hospital makes its rounds.

The Africa Mercy is the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world and has been serving the people of Africa’s impoverished nations since 2007. After serving 10 months in Guinea, the Africa Mercy set sail in August 2019 for Senegal—where it’ll spend 10 months providing access to aid not usually afforded to, or affordable to, the poorest of the country’s 16.3 million citizens.

“When they see these photos of big tumors, they ask, ‘How does this happen?'” …There’s no access to safe, timely surgery, and even if they can access it, they can’t afford it.”

—Tom Stogner, CEO, Mercy Ships

The Africa Mercy’s specialty surgery unit concentrates mostly on head and neck procedures, such as tumor removals, cleft lips and palates, fistulas, orthopedics, eye treatments, hernias, as well as dental services.

Odilon before and after his surgery in 2009

“These are preventable conditions that we don’t think twice about in North America, Western Europe, or most of the world,” says Mercy Ships CEO Tom Stogner.

Stogner notes that people are often shocked by the images they see of some of Africa Mercy‘s patients. “When they see these photos of big tumors, they ask, ‘How does this happen?'” he says. “The reality is it is the sign of poverty. There’s no access to safe, timely surgery, and even if they can access it, they can’t afford it.”

Find the Hidden Patients From Social Media and Text

Stogner and Mercy Ships refer to the people who suffer from these treatable conditions as “the forgotten poor.” He explains: “We know the poor are there. But they’re often hidden because they’re outcasts of society, their superstition, and they don’t know what to do. They’re just locked up because people won’t come near them.”

To solve the logistics of finding the hidden patients, Mercy Ships turns to technology, particularly social media and text.

It’s for this reason that Stogner says the challenge is not so much that these individuals are forgotten, but rather they need to be found.

To solve the logistics of finding the hidden, Mercy Ships turns to technology, particularly social media and text. “We use the power of social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat,” Stogner says. “These connectivity tools help us find patients and get them to the ship.”

The Africa Mercy is truly a small city on board, with a rotating staff of 400 volunteers from more than 50 countries in medicine, hospitality, marine, information systems, communications crew, food preparation, and other professions. In fact, the Africa Mercy even has an accredited school to serve the 30 to 40 families who are living onboard at any given time. It’s a unique environment that features a diversity and depth of support that goes beyond your typical large ship or major hospital. And so does its reach.

Lasting Hope

The Mercy Ships mission extends far beyond the ship’s surgical center. The organization aims to contribute to governments in building or augmenting their national surgical development plans to further enhance each nation’s ability to care for its people.

“One of the things that we ask the first time we meet with a government is, ‘Do you have a national surgical development plan?’ If they say yes, we see how we can contribute to its development and ongoing fulfillment,” Stogner says. “And if they say no, the organization begins the work to establish one.”

Much of the lasting impact comes by way of training surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, biomedical technicians, administrators—essentially everyone—to become more successful and pass that knowledge around to others. “It has a multiplying effect,” Stogner says. “If we are not working ourselves out of a job, we’re not doing development work.”

Stogner cites one example of a partnership between the Mercy Ships Medical Capacity Building program and the Guinean Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene to offer mentoring and training courses to faculty and students at the Gamal Abdel Nasser University—Guinea’s only dental school.

“Our hope and aspiration is that the dental training clinic will do more dentistry and train more people than we’ve ever been able to do, even through several repeated ship visits,” Stogner says. “The goal is to create a long-lasting activity that will not only impact Guinea, but potentially be a regional center of excellence where they could impact the countries around them.”

In addition to the lasting impact of training and improvement to national healthcare, there is the lasting impact to the patients themselves—and those surrounding them. Stogner recounts stories of people aspiring to become doctors or nurses after seeing the difference a surgery has made for an individual in their village. “If we can, for example, give the provider of a home a life-changing surgery,” he says, “it not only affects his or her ability to provide for his children, to keep them out of poverty, and also contribute to society, it changes the world view of everybody involved.”

How a Hybrid Cloud Model Helped Mercy Ships Ramp Up Operations

Floating hospitals are among the most complex technological environments in the world. “It’s unusual to find out here the IT infrastructure that really requires a higher level of skill set than you’d normally find in a larger city,” says Chris Gregg, CIO of Mercy Ships. “The largest challenge we have, from an IT perspective, is maintaining simplicity among all of that complexity.”

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Simplicity is even more critical as Mercy Ships works to double its operations with a second ship. The new ship is set to begin service within the next two years and will more than double the medical capacity of Mercy Ships. This period of high growth requires the ability to ramp up operations quickly without having to bring on extra IT staff, while still ensuring the organization is set up to do the most good, for the most people, in the most locations.

“We’ve been looking at how to simplify our infrastructure so we can focus on the growth of the organization, be ready to operate two ships, and run our departments so that we can effectively serve the organization as we scale up.”

—Chris Gregg, CIO, Mercy Ships

“We’ve been looking at how to simplify our infrastructure so we can focus on the growth of the organization, be ready to operate two ships, and run our departments so that we can effectively serve the organization as we scale up,” Gregg says. “Having a modern infrastructure approach is really important.”

Gregg’s vision includes continuing the evolution of Mercy Ships from a traditional data center architecture toward a hybrid cloud model and consolidating support operations, without having to build additional data centers or further stretch existing resources.

“With operating data centers on the ship, we need to keep on-premise, but as we look at the strategy for our support operations, we don’t want to continue building data centers and maintaining data centers in our International Support System in Texas,” Gregg says. “We want to take a hybrid cloud approach, and our goal is to be able to manage our environment seamlessly across the on-premise data centers on ship, along with the cloud environment.”

After four decades on the water, Mercy Ships has served citizens of 56 countries and recently surpassed its 100,000th surgical procedure. When its newest, largest ship launches, the organization looks forward to quickly completing its next 100,000 surgeries in far less time.

Stogner says the ship is being built with a 50-year horizon, keeping an eye on how technology and its exponential evolution in health and medicine will allow them to do things they can’t even imagine today.

“At the end of the day, a very universal thing to all of us is living well and having access to healthcare,” Stogner concludes. “It’s something we all identify with, no matter where you come from or what you believe.”