Celebrating the surgeon behind the first operation on the Global Mercy
Around 100 years ago, Rachel Buckingham’s grandmother became a doctor at a time when some universities in the U.K. still barred women from qualifying as physicians.
Little did Dr. Muriel Griffiths from Cardiff, Wales, know that she would inspire her descendants as she headed off to India to treat patients with leprosy in the 1920s.
Today, her granddaughter Rachel is the lead orthopedic surgeon volunteering on board the world’s first purpose-built charity hospital ship — the Global Mercy®.
On March 6, she performed the first surgery in one of the brand-new state-of-the-art operating theaters on board the ship which has docked in Senegal, West Africa, for the next five months.
Dr. Buckingham, who has been a Consultant Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon at the Oxford University Trust since 2007, said, “My grandmother was a doctor and a trailblazer. In the 1920s she went off as an unmarried woman to India as a medical missionary.
“Hearing what she did, including her work with leprosy patients, made me decide, at age 10, that I wanted to study medicine. And I did not want to do anything else from then on!”
Sadly, her grandmother died in 1977 when Dr. Buckingham was still young, but her formidable spirt left its mark.
Fast forward to 2023, where Dr. Buckingham was part of an historic moment herself, as she performed the first surgery on board the Global Mercy — a ship which is expected to transform more than 150,000 lives through surgery alone during its 50-year lifespan.
In addition to desperately needed free operations for people in need, thousands of African medical professionals will receive training and mentoring with the goal of multiplying impact within their communities.
While Dr. Buckingham performs her surgeries, she will be training a Moroccan orthopedic surgeon alongside her, who is committed to staying in Senegal to treat the Senegalese people.
Dr. Buckingham, 55, said: “Senegal does not have a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. I am hopeful he will be their first.”
“Coming out here you notice some stark differences in the lack of surgical care people have here,” Dr. Buckingham said. “We treat children with severe deformities. Back home they would never be able to get to that point because we would have treated them in early life. People are just so grateful for the chance to get surgery.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately nine out of 10 people have no access to safe surgery, according to a 2015 Lancet study. Dr. Buckingham said the need is critically obvious.
“What keeps me coming back is the need,” she shared. “It’s the ability to train local healthcare workers and make a difference. Mercy Ships really wants to do itself out of a job. You go into medicine to have an impact, so here we have a massive impact.”
Just as her grandmother did, Dr. Buckingham’s determination and courage is seeing her change the lives of those in urgent need.
Could you transform lives like this volunteer? Mercy Ships needs all kinds of skills, from medical to maritime, teaching, and hospitality, in order to run its hospital ships. Discover more at https://www.mercyships.org/get-involved/