Dentists share their journey on the Global Mercy
Dr. Marijke Westerduin and Dr. Salematou Camara met in person on board the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, the Global Mercy, — but their first encounter took place years earlier through a screen. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, Dr. Westerduin logged onto Zoom calls from her home in the Netherlands to help train Dr. Camara, then a dental student at the Universite Gamal Abdel Nasser of Conakry (UGANC) in Guinea. These regular calls became a bridge, connecting Dr. Westerduin’s wealth of experience as a dental professional with Dr. Camara’s growing aspirations.
Fast forward three years, these virtual tethers have now given way to a tangible reality in Sierra Leone, where both women volunteered together in the hospital ship’s dental clinic. Working side by side, they embodied the evolution from online mentorship to a real-world partnership, seamlessly blending their skills and shared expertise to provide quality dental care to both patients and crewmembers.
On board the Global Mercy, Dr. Westerduin and Dr. Camara’s collaboration extended beyond mentorship.
“Having Salematou here is a real blessing,” Dr. Westerduin reflected on their shared purpose to serve with compassion and excellence.
For Dr. Camara, her former mentor remained a steadfast teacher: “She says we are colleagues, but to me, she is still my teacher. Any time I want to discuss something, she always has time, and we discuss very well.”
An Early Calling to Global Impact: Dr. Westerduin
When she was 15 years old, Dr. Westerduin’s youthful curiosity propelled her to board the Anastasis, the inaugural hospital vessel in the Mercy Ships fleet. The hospital ship was anchored close to her home in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and was open to the public for tours. She had read fliers with stories of healing on the ship and wanted to see it all for herself.
“Right away, I was touched by the work done and the medical professionals working there,” she remembered. She immediately felt a connection to the transformative work taking place on board, saying the stories and images of the dedicated volunteers ignited a flame within her.
This visit would become the prologue to her own story of volunteering.
In 2020, having carved a path in dentistry over the years, Dr. Westerduin, now married with two children, felt the time had come to pay forward the compassion she had witnessed as a teenager.
However, the family’s volunteer journey faced a hurdle as COVID-19 held back their plans. Undeterred by the delay, Dr. Westerduin found she could volunteer in other ways.
In addition to being a dentist, she had been teaching dentistry at a university in the Netherlands. She decided to put her teaching skills to use by helping train dental students at the only public dental school in Conakry, Guinea, where Mercy Ships had an existing partnership to help provide education and clinical experience for dental students.
“[At] that time, we started doing many things online… meetings and teaching. So, for me, it was an easy step to continue teaching,” Dr. Westerduin shared.
After sharing her skills virtually with students like Dr. Camara for more than a year, Dr. Westerduin finally boarded the Global Mercy with her family in 2021, where she began serving as the lead dentist, first in Senegal and later in Sierra Leone.
Dr. Westerduin says working on board has strengthened her skills, especially with on-the-spot decision making: “You become very flexible and creative… A lot of times, patients can only come to the dental clinic once, and the big decisions on treatment must be made right away.”
She added that the highlight of her role is witnessing patients’ relief when doctors diagnose a perceived tumor as a treatable dental issue. As patients arrive with jaw swellings, initially feared to be a tumor, surgeons diagnose it as dental inflammation.
“At that moment, we can really help them relieve their pain and make the mouth healthy again,” she shared.
Discovering a Broader Vision: Dr. Camara
Growing up in Guinea, Dr. Camara says dentistry often lingered in obscurity in her community: “It was not something that was known.”
As a result, she saw people in need endure silently, unaware that a single neglected tooth could escalate into a significant health concern.
“The fact that they don’t know anything about it [means] they stay home without going to the hospital, and the problem gets worse after months,” she said.
Part of the challenge stemmed from the limited number of trained dentists available nationwide to meet the immense need.
“People just think that once they have pain, they can just go to the market and find someone to pull it out,” Dr. Camara shared.
Inspired by this, she decided to pursue dentistry, driven by a simple yet powerful mission: “I want to be part of the people who can put a smile on people’s faces.”
In 2018, when the Universite Gamal Abdel Nasser of Conakry (UGANC) and Mercy Ships began collaborating to enhance the quality of dental education in Guinea, Dr. Camara joined the program as a student in pursuit of this dream. Through this partnership, hundreds of aspiring dentists like Dr. Camara have now received training and clinical experience in their field — and the program continues to expand even beyond Guinea’s borders. In 2023, as part of its focus on Education, Training, and Advocacy (ETA), Mercy Ships expanded its dental education sponsorship program by adding a new partnership with the University of Sierra Leone.
Through the partnership, five dental students traveled to UGANC to begin their studies. After obtaining a Doctorate of Dental Surgery, these dentists will then return home to begin providing dental care in Sierra Leone, a country which currently faces a serious lack of dental workforce with only .18 dentists per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. In contrast, there are approximately 61 dentists for every 100,000 people in the United States.
For Dr. Camara, graduation meant it was time to start actively making dental care more accessible to those who needed it most. She decided to use her newfound skills and clinical experience to volunteer as a dentist with Mercy Ships in Sierra Leone.
Dr. Camara says her aspirations have gradually transformed during her time on board the Global Mercy. When the dental team on board began treating patients out of a shipping container turned into a dental clinic, the creative workplace solution planted seeds of innovation in her mind. It became a catalyst for a broader vision to reach the far-flung regions of Guinea.
“When the container came, I thought, why can’t we have something like this in those rural regions and help people?”
The working environment on board further inspired a constant state of planning and envisioning accessibility and comprehensive dental care in her home country: “We have so much we need to improve, and I am always thinking about it… how we can fix things in my country; I think about how we can set up projects. Now my vision is wide.”
From lifesaving surgeries to life-changing medical training, Mercy Ships volunteers work hard to ensure that hope and healing is available in the countries we serve. See how you can be a part of the mission here.