Akissi, an 18-year-old girl, waits patiently in line. Slowly, she moves closer to the examination area. She thinks back on the four months since her first medical screening near her home in northern Togo. She has been anxiously awaiting this day. The moment has finally come, and she prays that the doctor will say to her, “Yes, we can help you.”
Akissi is one of many female patients that arrived on the dock of the Africa Mercy with the hope of being reborn. These women are being screened for a debilitating condition called vesico-vaginal fistula, or VVF. Such a condition is common in African countries because of the lack of obstetric care. The Mercy Ships program, aptly titled “Hope Reborn,” will ease their suffering.
VVF is usually caused by difficulties during childbirth. Some women writhe in agony for several days before giving birth to a stillborn child. The prolonged, obstructed labor causes a hole to form between the bladder and the vagina, making it difficult to live a normal life. The women experience an involuntary discharge of urine, causing an unpleasant odor.
Maggie Schrenk, VVF coordinator and a volunteer on the Africa Mercy , has also been waiting for this day for several months. “These women are very special. I hold a special place in my heart for them. Today starts 6 weeks of surgeries that will repair their lives.”
VVF is a stigma in African society. Although the condition is prevalent, it is not a subject for discussion. In fact, people try to ignore it. Women suffering with VVF are usually shunned, becoming isolated from everyday life.
If more doctors knew how to repair fistulas, many women could be released from their lives of separation and despair.
That is why Dr. Steve Aerosmith spends much of his time educating local surgeons. Dr. Aerosmith is a VVF surgeon from the United States and has spent 23 years performing VVF surgeries and educating African surgeons about the technique. Teaching other doctors onboard the Africa Mercy is a unique opportunity that Dr. Aerosmith appreciates very much.
“The ship is an amazing training platform,” Aerosmith says. “You take these African doctors out of their home medical facilities, and all their distractions are taken away – no cell phone coverage, no pagers – and all their other needs are taken care of. It's a unique niche for the ship that nobody else can match.”
Screening day onboard the Africa Mercy is a long arduous day, but Aerosmith and the VVF team are prepared and up to the challenge. By 11:00 a.m. they are two hours ahead of schedule.
Lindsay Nelson, VVF Assistant Coordinator, explains, “We are moving through the exams quickly, which is great. We will see about 60 women today. After Dr. Aerosmith examines each one, the team will convene and decide who we will bring in for surgery, and who are inoperable.”
Spirits remain high throughout the day, and examinations are completed by 4:00 p.m. Maggie comments, “We will have ceremonies celebrating the ones who have received successful surgery. That day marks a new life for them and those are the moments I live for.”
There will be many of those moments onboard the Africa Mercy in the next few weeks … thanks to the hard work of the amazing Mercy Ships VVF team.
Story by Claire Bufe
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Women waiting to be examined on screening day - some of these are already dry and have left us for home!