A TRAINEE anaesthetist is helping disadvantaged people on a mercy mission off the coast of Africa.
Hartlepool man Andrew Robertson is changing people’s lives after embarking on his second mission run by the charity Mercy Ships.
The charity operates on people who have a range of physical deformities which are seen as a “curse” by locals and can even see babies being killed and victims shunned by their community.
The charity operates the Africa Mercy vessel that is staffed by 400 volunteers from 40 different countries and sails along the coast to provide healthcare for people who otherwise could not afford it.
It treats and operates on people who have the likes of cleft lip and palate, cataract and crossed eye corrections, facial reconstructions, club feet and dental treatments, on children and adults.
Former English Martyrs School pupil Andrew is an anaesthetist who makes sure that the patients are stable and unconscious during their life-changing operations.
Andrew, 28, told the Mail: “The procedures really are life changing.
“To many people here, physical deformities here are seen as a curse. Babies with cleft lips can be killed or abandoned, adults with facial tumour are ostracised from society, those with hernias cannot work and provide for their families. After operations, the hernia patients cannot thank you enough.
“Those with facial deformities are a little different. They are not used to people making eye contact with them or speaking or showing them any kind of kindness.
“It is great to see them grow in confidence and happiness post operatively when they realise they look normal again.
“The patients with facial surgeries are all given a mirror and they are encouraged to look at their faces to re-learn what they look like. Many touch the place where the tumours were and just stare at their reflection. The men are slightly more proud or shy and lie on their sides in the bed and when they think no-one is watching they have a sneaky look with their mirrors.”
Andrew is currently on his second mission with the charity as it is berthed in Togo after previously being involved in a posting in Sierra Leone.
The surgery is conducted on the ship which has six operating theatres, a laboratory, pharmacy, a 78-bed ward and an outpatient clinic.
There are also land-based facilities, a the dental clinic is set up on land near the ship, as are the screening tents to screen patients for treatment.
Mercy Ships also goes into communities to run community development projects, community health education, mental health programs, agriculture projects and palliative care for terminally ill patients.
In Togo it has renovated a Hospital Out-Patient Extension (HOPE) Centre, for which Mercy Ships donors paid more than £50,000 to be home for 40 patients at a time, each accompanied by a caregiver, for pre-operative and post-operative care.
Andrew, who took a year out from his training at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, heard about the charity from a senior anaesthetist and first boarded the Africa Mercy last August for four months to Sierra Leone.
He is currently in Togo on his second mission and is due to return home later this month.
One of the patients that have been helped by the charity include a boy called Abel Dalome who had a condition where his muscles stopped growing but his bones had not.
It resulted in his legs not growing correctly because there was so little muscle to direct them.
Abel’s physical deformity made him the target of ridicule from other children.Patients often face abuse and social exclusion as their deformities are seen as a mark of the devil.
After more than three months of surgery to straighten the leg and post-operative care, he returned home to the village of Homa, deep in the bush, with straight legs where he was able to play football with the other children in the village.
Andrew has seen a 35-year-old woman suffer with a gangrenous disease leading to tissue destruction of her face, as well as a 15-year-old girl with a large tumour growing from her cheek bones, pushing on her eyes, and many children who had been abandoned or cast out of their villages just because they have a cleft lip.
Andrew said: “These people and many more stick in my mind and all received surgery which, not only improved their physical appearance, but gave them a chance to live as a normal person in society. “It is such a privilege to see patients look at their reconstructed facial deformities and see their faces light up and the happiness in their eyes.
“I’ve met loads of people from around the world who have become very good friends. You get very close to people when living in such close quarters with them on the ship.
“Volunteering for Mercy Ships really makes you stop and think about how lucky we are to have accessible health care at home.”
l THE charity is staging an Easter Breakfast Campaign this month to raise cash as just £40 could put a smile back on a child’s face by helping to fund a cleft lip and palate operation. There are many ways to become involved and all people have to do is ring mercy Ships on (01438) 727800 for a free fundraising pack.