7-month-old patient receives cleft lip surgery onboard world’s largest nonprofit hospital ship

LINDALE, Texas (May 21) — A baby born with a debilitating cleft lip in Guinea has received free surgery from international Mercy Ships volunteers, marking the nonprofit’s 100,000th surgical procedure1 onboard its charity hospital ships.

Aissata (EYE-sat-ah), a 7-month-old child, traveled with her mother nearly 200 miles to receive the surgery on the hospital ship the Africa Mercy, which has provided free surgeries to more than 2,100 people in Guinea since arriving in August.

For Mercy Ships, the milestone represents an important point in the nonprofit’s 40-year legacy. For Aissata, the free surgery changed the trajectory of her life.

“I have always been very worried about her future and what would happen to her if I didn’t get her the surgery she needs,” said Aissata’s mother, Hassanatou (Ha–SANA–tu). “But now that she has come here to the ship, I am no longer worried.”Hassanatou holding Aissata after her surgery on the Africa Mercy.

Hassanatou holding Aissata after her surgery on the Africa Mercy.


Their family is among the world’s estimated 5 billion people who do not have access to safe, affordable, timely surgery. In sub-Saharan Africa specifically, 93 percent of the population can’t get the surgery it needs.2

Mercy Ships addresses this global surgery crisis within Africa by sending hospital ships staffed by volunteers to the places where surgeons are needed most. These surgeons also train local medical professionals who will stay in their home countries, effecting change long after Mercy Ships departs. Mercy Ships has touched more than 2.7 million lives since 1978.

“Seeing Aissata’s new smile after her surgery is an image of the hope and healing we are working to provide for thousands of people in Africa who are without access to surgical care,” Mercy Ships founder Don Stephens said.

Dr. Phil Freeman, a maxillofacial surgeon from Texas, is one of nearly 400 volunteers currently serving onboard the hospital ship. Dr. Freeman has been dedicated to transforming lives for the world’s forgotten poor, and he helped lead the operation for Aissata.

“Providing healing for others is the reason we become medical professionals in the first place,” Freeman said. “The need for surgical care is universal. With Mercy Ships, I’m able to provide the same healing we would in America to patients like Aissata who otherwise would never receive the care they deserve.”

Aissata is fortunate to have had her cleft lip repaired as an infant. In the developed world, the condition typically is treated in infancy. But in places with limited access to surgery, many children simply cannot get treatment. The condition can lead to malnutrition if infants are unable to nurse, and it can lead to social exclusion or stigmatization as the children grow older. Thanks to her free treatment from Mercy Ships, Aissata won’t have to face those challenges.

“Our surgical program changes the entire course of our patients’ lives,” said Donovan Palmer, CEO of Mercy Ships. “And by forming partnerships with African nations, together we are building a powerful legacy of hope and healing that’s contributing to the overall development of West and Central Africa.”

Aissata was treated by the following medical volunteers serving with Mercy Ships:

  • United States:
    • Phil Freeman (maxillofacial surgeon) — Texas
    • Brian Barki (anesthesia supervisor) — Oklahoma
  • Australia: David Chong (plastic surgeon) and Jill Sullivan (anesthetic assistant)
  • United Kingdom: Rachel Pollard (anesthesia provider)
  • New Zealand: Zhalmaine Tuya (OR nurse)
  • South Korea: Hanna Shim (OR nurse)
  • Malaysia: Catherine Lai (Ward nurse)


After Mercy Ships completes its fourth surgical visit in Guinea in June, the Africa Mercy will sail for Senegal in August.




ABOUT MERCY SHIPS:  Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class healthcare services, capacity building and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world. Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than $1 billion, treating more than 2.5 million direct beneficiaries. Each year Mercy Ships has more than 1,600 volunteers from more than 40 nations. Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills to the effort. Mercy Ships seeks to transform individuals and serve nations one at a time. Learn more about who we are.


For More Information:

Contact: Laura Rebouche ́
U.S. National Media Relations Director Mercy Ships
Office:+1 903.939.7000
Direct:+1 903.939.7127
Email: laura.rebouche@mercyships.org

For Int’l: Diane Rickard
International Media Relations Manager Mercy Ships

Hi-res photos and general Mercy Ships B-Roll video footage are available upon request.