Mercy Ships (Garden Valley, Texas)

Sierra Leone: Women's Obstetric Health Highlighted on International Women?s Day

Garden Valley, TX — Recently, a young Sierra Leonean woman made a trip back to the African country of her birth to volunteer onboard a floating hospital, the Africa Mercy, which is operated by Mercy Ships. She is alive today, thanks to a Mercy Ships medical intervention two decades ago.

This year on International Women's Day, the global nonprofit highlights her inspiring story as an example of the lives of women and children being saved every day through improved maternal health. Despite progress in Millennium Development Goal 5, pregnancy remains a major health risk for women in Africa.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)1, only 42% of births in Africa are attended by skilled personnel. Many mothers and children in developing countries suffer serious injury, disability or death due to complications that would be preventable or treatable in developed nations. For the past 20 years, Mercy Ships has been addressing women's and children's health issues in West African nations through the deployment of their state-of-the art hospital ships.

"Put simply, it is thanks to Mercy Ships that both my mother and I are alive today. That alone makes me want to give something back," says 18-year-old Tina Regina Conteh, now from Australia thanks to the nation's refugee resettlement program.

Back in the early 1990s at the start of Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, Tina Regina's parents, Catherine and Augustine Conteh, awaited the birth of their first child. As Catherine's labor continued for a number of days, the family's apprehension grew. Although they took Catherine to the local hospital, they did not have the money to pay for a Caesarean section. This situation is all too common in West Africa. In many cases both the mother and child die. If the mother does survive, she often suffers an injury – called an obstetric fistula – from the pressure of the baby's head on the pelvic bone. The tissue is torn, usually leaving the mother incontinent and unable to bear additional children. Sadly, the poor woman is often abandoned by friends and family – left without any means of support.

The Contehs were not aware that a Mercy Ship was docked a few kilometers away in the port of Freetown. The ship's British anesthetist Keith Thomson happened to be touring the hospital that day and noticed Catherine's distress. When he learned that the family could not afford $100 (the equivalent of about six months' wages) for the necessary operation, Thomson decided to pay the fee himself. And the story had a very happy ending – Catherine was saved and a healthy baby girl, Tina Regina Conteh, was born.

This incident, along with a number of other issues in the years following, converged to contribute to the initial development of the Mercy Ships vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) and rectovaginal fistula (RVF) program, which began more than ten years ago. Now the surgical program onboard the Africa Mercy not only repairs obstetric fistula but also provides specialized surgical training for African surgeons, thus increasing awareness of the condition in their nations.

Dr. Lauri Romanzi, Clinical Associate Professor of Urology at New York University's Langone Medical Center Division of Female Pelvic Medicine will be one of the surgeons volunteering onboard the Africa Mercy this spring.

Within Mercy Ships goal of helping to close the gaps in maternal health in the ports served by the ship, Dr. Romanzi will mentor two Togolese surgeons in aspects of obstetric fistula repair during her six-week stint onboard in April and May. Previously she has done VVF surgery in Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Somaliland and Tanzania. Between 60-70 women have been accepted for fistula surgery during the Mercy Ships visit in the port of Lomé.

"When you take care of the women, you take care of the men, you take care of the children, you take care of the village; you contribute to the possibility of a solid foundation for the future of a country. Women suffering obstetric fistula are among the most desperately underserved, impoverished women on earth, suffering shocking degrees of disenfranchisement that require the deepest capacities of human resilience. These women are heroes. It is a privilege to know them and an honor to care for them," stated Dr. Romanzi.

Similarly, Tina Regina is creating a circle of service as she aspires to become a registered nurse and to dedicate her life to helping others, even serving a short while onboard the Africa Mercy. When she finishes her nursing degree, she will continue to make a contribution to the lives of women – helping to create happy endings to their stories.

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