Pair offer relief on Mercy ship

SARAH DUNN
Last updated 09:24 23/11/2012
rachel burton
Mercy Ships 2012 Debra Bell

TREATMENT: Richmond dental assistant Rachel Burton treats patients on board hospital ship the Africa Mercy

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Two Nelson healthcare workers were surprised and delighted to run into one another on board a hospital ship in Guinea, Africa.

Richmond dental assistant Rachel Burton started 12 weeks of volunteer service on board the Africa Mercy ship in August and returned home this week.

Mercy Ships is a Christian non-profit organisation which performs surgeries, dental procedures and other health services to poverty-stricken West African citizens. Rachel said she worked for three years with the Richmond Dental Centre and trained at Nelson Orthodontics for a further two before she felt ready to apply for the intense programme but "hoped and prayed" to return for another round of service.

"The on-going medical conditions that people in Africa live with really impact my heart," she said. "It has made me realise we have medical care so easily available at home."

Last week, she completed a two-day visit to Guinea's Central Prison in the city of Conakry. Besides being Rachel's first time in a prison, the "extreme dental programme" involved seven dentists, four dental assistants, one hygienist and 10 translators who operated out of the prison's church using nine portable dental chairs.

Because the prison did not have a dentist, Rachel said prisoners commonly "used what they could" to pull painful teeth out of their own mouths. The team performed more than 600 extractions on 321 people during their visit.

"The gratefulness that came from the men and women we treated was a bit mind-boggling," said Rachel. "The fact we were able to give treatment to these people and remove the infected teeth under local anesthetic is just amazing to me and one way I feel called to use my God-given gifts."

Rachel said one of the most rewarding aspects of the service was connecting with the Guinean community. After she was able to fix "lots" of problems with one five-year-old girl's teeth, the girl came back and gave her a hug.

"She couldn't stop smiling and just wanted to hold my hand. Knowing how much she appreciated our help really made me know it was all worth it."

Rachel was also excited to see Stoke nurse Faith Fawcett, who joined the international crew of 450 in September. Faith works at the Ernest Rutherford Retirement Village and is spending nine weeks on board the hospital ship working in the eye clinic.

Mercy Ships communications manager Sharon Wells said Guinea had only one dentist for every 250,000 people. She said the Guinean population largely used frayed twigs to clean their teeth as toothbrushes and toothpaste was beyond their budget, which caused widespread tooth decay.

Sharon said the Africa Mercy team would stay in Guinea until June next year, treating between 9000 to 11,500 dental patients and performing about 2600 eye surgeries before the ship moved to the next port. As well as daily dental and eye clinics, Sharon said Mercy Ships provided orthopaedics, cleft lip and palate repair, removal of massive tumours, burns contracture and obstetric fistula repair.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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