While the Africa Mercy and Global Mercy were docked in Senegal, volunteer physical therapists from all around the world came on board for months at a time to offer their skills and expertise.
More than 350 patients came across many different volunteers on the physical rehabilitation team — but there was one familiar face that almost every patient met: Mame Birame Sy.
The Senegalese graduate student had no medical aspirations before coming on board the Africa Mercy in 2019, but the love that she experienced on board — with both the patients and her fellow crewmembers — compelled her to return again and again. She ultimately served with the rehab team for all three field services in her country.
The Beginning of a Journey
The eldest of six siblings, Mame grew up in a town just outside the Dakar region of Senegal. She learned about Mercy Ships through advertisements at the university where she was pursuing her master’s in English with a specialization in African literature. Having previously worked in a call center and taught English courses to children, Mame was poised to become a translator. Already familiar with the field of medicine through her father, Mame was excited to bring these experiences to serve patients directly.
Proud of her, Mame’s father admitted, “You are now able to do things that even I, in the medical field, can’t.”
Mame’s managers recognized her reliability and gradually expanded her responsibilities beyond interpretation, relying on her for operational consistency.
“She is a faithful servant; that’s how I would describe her,” said Jean-Baptiste Ahouangonou, the long-term volunteer from Benin responsible for coordinating the national crewmembers in Senegal. “She knows her job very well, and she does it faithfully. She’s one of the best.”
Among the first patients that Mame met was Marie-Madeleine, a 13-year-old whose right knee hyperextended backward. Marie-Madeleine’s transformation over three months, both physically and mentally, affirmed to Mame that she was exactly where she should be. Seeing Marie-Madeleine develop a dream of becoming a doctor prompted the 26-year-old to reconsider her own career path.
Before surgery, Mame realized that many patients seemed to be “alive without a life” — but she saw firsthand as this changed as they healed.
“Working with the orthopedics team has inspired me to consider pursuing the study of ortho because I have a love for it,” she explained. “Seeing the tears, joy, smiles — and how they find a new life makes me ask, ‘Why not pursue this’?”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mame already began putting into practice what she’d learned in her first seven months on board to assist her father in his work, and she became a resource to her community in responding to minor medical issues. “Helping, and feeling that because of you, someone is happy — because of you, someone is healed” kept her motivated.
After two years away during the pandemic, the Africa Mercy sailed back to Senegal in 2022 and reopening her doors for surgery — and Mame was ready to serve again.
“As long as Mercy Ships comes back to my country, I will keep joining Mercy Ships in this mission — no matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing,” said Mame.
Despite the time away from the ship, Mame appreciated that the diverse community on board welcomed her warmly into their makeshift family.
“It’s not easy to work in a community, but here, Mercy Ships succeeds where others fail,” she shared. “Sometimes, you get to work with lots of things on your mind, but you forget them when you get here. The environment is wonderful.”
Jean-Baptiste said that she never tired. “She spreads so much joy around her,” he explained. “She’s always interactive, laughing, playful — she’s just wonderful.”
“She’s just always helpful, and not just to me, but to everyone around us,” echoed Rehab Team Leader Dean Hufstedler. “Mame is a very, very quick learner — very eager learner, and at this point, when we’re taking off fiberglass casts, I know that I can just hand her the cast saw, and then she will not only get the job done quickly and efficiently, but can even almost make it fun for the kids, and she seems to always know just what to say to calm the kids down if they’re nervous about what’s going on.”
As the Global Mercy left Senegal to begin its next service in Sierra Leone, Mame remained in her home country, where she hopes to bring her expanded skills and experiences to serve her people in new and life-changing ways.