For many volunteers, serving with Mercy Ships can be as transformational emotionally as it is physically for the patients we serve. One former volunteer, Dr. Sandra Lako, shares her story.
How long did you (and your family) serve with Mercy Ships, and how old were you?
I was two years old when my family moved to the M/V Anastasis in Greece. I lived onboard the ship and attended school there until I graduated from high school in 1994 at the age of 16 years.
What are some of your most impactful memories of being with Mercy Ships?
There are many. My mother was a nurse on the ship, so as a child we often had the opportunity to go down to the ward to spend time with the children who were receiving surgery. We played and spent time with them. This was a unique opportunity to get involved in a small way. I think as a child this was also a very good way of engaging with other cultures.
How did your experience with Mercy Ships affect your decision to enter the medical field, as well as your decision to continue serving in West Africa?
The memory with the most impact was when the ship was in Sierra Leone. As high school students, we had the opportunity to join some of the “off ship” programs. During one week, we helped on a construction site and painted a school that was built by Mercy Ships. During another week we joined the medical team providing clinical services in a nearby village. During that time, there was a measles outbreak. Many of the children that came to the clinic were very sick. Us ‘kids’ held these children, mostly infants, and helped feed them. Sadly some of the children died during that week. That made an impact on me. It’s idealistic, but because of that experience, I decided I wanted to be a doctor to help children in Africa in the future.
I went to medical school in The Netherlands and was very keen to go back to Africa one day. After medical school and some work experience in The Netherlands, I went to Liverpool to complete a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene course. During the end of the course is when I was informed about the land base project that Mercy Ships was starting in Sierra Leone. I was asked if I would like to join and set up a general outpatient clinic. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back to Africa. Looking back, it’s incredible that I have now lived and worked in Sierra Leone as a doctor for 14 years, in the country where God first planted this idea in my heart!
What is the major need that you see in the area that you work? How do you think that need can be met?
There are many needs. Sierra Leone has some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world. One of the biggest challenges is affordable and accessible quality healthcare. I currently work in a pediatric outpatient clinic and am proud to say that we are able to provide quality care for free to children from birth through 15 years of age. Unfortunately, due to constraints in the budget, we have to limit the number of patients we’re seeing until additional funding is secured. One of the most challenging parts of my job is having to turn away a mother with her sick child, knowing that there are very few options for the mother in terms of receiving affordable quality care for that child. Most often, they try to access our clinic again the next day, taking the risk that the child may worsen overnight. Extra funding to bridge the gap is needed.
How have you continued to partner with Mercy Ships through the years?
Since working in Sierra Leone I have worked closely with Mercy Ships, mostly in terms of referring pediatric surgical cases to the ship. I recently sent four patients to the ship, for cleft palate repairs and am traveling to the ship in Guinea myself to take another seven patients to the ship for surgery. One of the patients who is currently onboard is Mohammed, who just had his cleft palate repair done. I look forward to seeing him when I arrive in Guinea.
Since Mohamed will be one of the patients featured in this same newsletter, do you have any additional insights, background information, etc. to share regarding him?
Mohamed’s parents brought him to us due to feeding difficulties because of his cleft lip and palate and asked if we could help with surgery. Both his mother and father were involved in his care from the beginning, which is unique in Sierra Leone since children with birth defects are often referred to as “devil children” and the mother is often accused as being involved in witchcraft. Usually, the family is considered cursed and community members and relatives often advise the parents to take the baby upcountry to the bush to leave them to die.
It is heartbreaking when I hear parents recall these experiences and when I can see the stigma that the mothers in particular carry. I emphasize that it is nothing the mother did during pregnancy that caused this and try to break through the guilt and stigma. It is only when the parents understand the condition and that surgical treatment is possible, and when they acknowledge that their baby is a normal child and not a devil child, that hope is sparked and we can begin to make progress in terms of the child’s health and growth.
We were able to spend time with Mohamed’s parents to explain the condition, the availability of surgery and most importantly, how best to feed Mohamed. In the months that followed, they came to the clinic every one to two weeks for weight monitoring and feeding advice. It was a joy to be able to arrange for Mohamed to go to the Africa Mercy along with six other patients from Sierra Leone for cleft lip surgery. I was able to visit the Africa Mercy during their time there and it was a joy to see the patients there. It was amazing to see the caregivers and their children together at the Hope Centre, getting to know each other, sharing experiences and most of all, showing so much love and concern towards their children.
It is a delight and a privilege to send children to Mercy Ships for surgery, not only because the surgery itself is so life-changing, but also because the love and kindness shown to the mother and child during their stay brings restoration, hope, and healing to the entire family.
If you could give advice to people interested in entering the medical field what would it be?
Do it! Follow your dreams. If it’s your passion, follow your heart. Explore your options. There are many ways to be involved within the medical field. People often consider becoming a doctor or a nurse but there is also a great need for other disciplines such as physiotherapy, dentistry, speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.
If you could give advice to people interested in serving with Mercy Ships what would it be?
Living and working on the ship will be one of the most unique experiences of your life. I would encourage anyone to work on the ship for a period of time. It’s an eye-opening experience. It will teach you a lot about yourself, community life, and the cultures around you. It won’t always be easy by any means, but I believe it will be worth it. I think, as with many of our experiences in life, it will probably impact you as much or more than those you go to help. Be prepared to be changed! Connect with people who have been on the ship before, ask about their experiences and ask them questions.
Please tell us a bit about your recent award/honor by the government!
On April 27, 2019, I was honored and humbled to receive an award as Commander of the Order of the Rokel from His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone for my 14 years of service in Sierra Leone. It was a momentous occasion that took place at State House, made even more special because my family and close friends were able to watch it via a live stream. Founded in 1972 the Order of the Rokel is Sierra Leone’s highest and most prestigious decoration awarded to recognize non-Sierra Leoneans who have distinguished themselves by making valuable contributions to the country in the areas of public service, arts and sciences, and philanthropy. It is named after the Rokel River, the largest river in Sierra Leone.