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Miracle-working surgeons
 Hi-tech ships bring grace, healing to the 'unspeakably' disfigured

© 2005 WorldNetDaily.com

Mercy Ships 522-foot flagship Anastasis

The faith that 25 years ago enabled a volunteer youth mission to believe it could see a dilapidated ocean liner turned into a hi-tech floating hospital is the catalyst today behind even more remarkable transformations – in the bodies and spirits of the poorest of the world's poor.

Specializing in the healing of horrific facial deformities in places where often little or no professional health care exists, Mercy Ships International's three vessels, staffed by thousands of volunteers, have provided more than 2 million services with a direct impact on 5.5 million people.

Following the 2,000 year-old model of Jesus – to make the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and proclaim good news – the Christian organization has performed more than 18,000 operations and surgical procedures, including cleft lip and palate, cataract removal, straightening of crossed-eyes and – in stunning fashion – orthopedic and facial reconstructions to bring healing from ghastly tumors that defy imagination.

Photojournalist Scott Harrison captured on film some of the remarkable transformations from life-threatening debilitations rarely seen in developed nations.


Doctors aboard the Anastasia operate on Alfred Sossou (photo: Scott Harrison)

Alfred Sossou, from a small fishing village on Lake Aheme in Benin, West Africa, was 10 when his face began to morph into an image of unspeakable horror from a cemento-ossifying fibroma – a rare rapidly growing facial tumor.

The Sossou family, living on less than a dollar a day in a mud hut without electricity or running water, sought village witchdoctors, who cut holes in the boy's face, sacrificed chickens, invoked idols and ancestors and performed dances, Harrison recalled.

But the tumor continued to grow, pushing Alfred's tongue back into his throat, eventually absorbing his teeth in his bottom jaw. Doctors in Benin's largest city could offer no treatment and advised the family to make another trip to the witchdoctors.

After a total of 15 witchdoctors had taken all the family's money, the tumor became monstrous, filling and then spilling out of his mouth, almost the size of a basketball.

"To eat, Alfred would force a hand between the oozing pink mass and the roof of his mouth, then shove food into an unspeakable void," Harrison wrote.

Slowly dying of starvation, he weighed only 44 pounds – five of those pounds were his tumor.

Then, a visiting pastor promised his church would pray for an answer and a cure. The next morning, Alfred said he'd been told in a dream that "his helper would come."

Three months later, the pastor returned to the house to tell Alfred and his family that a ship was coming to Benin, with a hospital and team of doctors who might be able to help.

Alfred's skeptical father was in no mood to risk more money, but his mother argued vehemently to trust the pastor, and the family pulled together the $10 taxi fare.

Later, in an operating room aboard the Mercy Ship Anastasis, Alfred's tumor lay in a tray. Two accomplished British and German surgeons took two ribs and pieces of bone from the 14-year-old boy's hip and grafted them to the titanium plate that now formed his lower jaw.


Alfred after his surgery. To see his condition before the operation, click here [Caution, images disturbing]

Eyes that once "revealed a soul wrought with such unspeakable horror one would be forced to turn away, reeling in shock, terror, and disbelief," Harrison wrote, are now "windows to a soul filled with grace."

Benin's president, Matthieu Kérékou, told Mercy Ships of his "deep gratitude for the love that you have for the population of Benin."

"To all of the ladies and gentlemen of the ship, I express my sincere congratulations for such an unflinching commitment on the side of the most vulnerable and poorest of third-world countries," he said.

Many other national leaders have thanked Mercy Ships for its work.

President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh of Gambia, said, "Not only have you treated my people and taken care of them, but you have also taught them valuable lessons, the most important being love and respect and caring for each other irrespective of race and religion. … We Gambians are very grateful to you."

Endorsing the ministry, Prime Minister Tony Blair says Mercy Ships' work "goes beyond healing and comforting the sick ... it provides a sense of hope that is badly needed in the places they work."

President Bush also has praised Mercy Ships, saying, "I have every hope you will continue to reach more and more patients in the years beyond. I know you will continue your mission of bringing hope and healing to those who need it most. May God continue to bless you in your important work."


Mercy Ships – which has treated more than 300,000 people in village medical clinics and performed 110,000 dental treatments – began as a work of the international ministry Youth With a Mission, which trains and sends out thousands of short-term volunteers each year to supplement the efforts of permanent staff.

In 1978, Don Stephens, one of YWAM's original leaders, found an old, decrepit passenger liner in Venice, Italy, called the Victoria. YWAM, viewing the ship as confirmation of a vision by its founder, Loren Cunningham, bought the vessel and towed it to Greece where it was renovated and renamed Anastasis, the Greek word for resurrection. The ship was such a mess that the galley alone took 25 young people three weeks to clean.

Mercy Ships gradually established independence and officially separated from YWAM in 2002.

Today the Anastasis is the world's largest floating non-governmental hospital, with three fully-equipped operating theatres, a dental clinic, an X-ray unit, CT scanner and a laboratory. The ship employs new technology that enables pathologists in the UK to view images of tumors via satellite and make quick diagnoses.


Mercy Ships vessel Africa Mercy

The group's second ship, the Caribbean Mercy, operating in the Caribbean Sea and Central America, is in Mobile, Ala., where it serves as a command center to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In just one example of partnership there, ship staff came to the aid of the devastated fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Alabama – made famous by the 1994 film "Forrest Gump." Mercy Ships is working with churches of different denominations to help restored the lives of the Cambodian, Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese immigrant fisherman who make their living on local waters. The fisherman saw their homes flattened, their shrimp boats wrecked or pushed inland, and the processing plants that buy their fish all but wiped out.

Last year, Mercy Ships rapidly responded to the Asian tsunami by shipping nearly $400,000 worth of donated relief supplies within days of the disaster. As the scope of the devastation became clearer, Mercy Ships made a long-term commitment to the region, which included providing boats to the fishermen who lost more than 23,000 vessels.

The newest ship in organization's fleet, the Africa Mercy, is under renovation in the United Kingdom. When completed, it will be the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship.

Mercy Ships have served in Brazil, China, Cook Islands, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Latvia, Lithuania, Madagascar, Mexico, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Pitcairn Island, Poland, Samoa, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Vanuatu.

The Anastasis now is in Liberia where it's partnering with local teachers, church leaders and other community members to help rebuild the West African nation after a 14-year civil war.

A team of 16 Mercy Ships staff members augmented by local volunteers is focusing on adult basic education, HIV/AIDS education, child development and training leaders for the community and churches.

"The drive is to be able to raise men and women who would sustain their own work," said a Liberian leading the team.

The ships' crew members, from some 40 countries, serve from two weeks to a lifetime, paying their way through crew fees to help offset the organization's expenses. Doctors and nurses volunteer for terms of several weeks to years. Hospitals often provide medical equipment and supplies; private companies contribute fuel and basic materials; and governments often waive port fees and related costs.


Lord Ian McColl

Lord Ian McColl, the former head surgeon at Guy's Hospital in London, gives up months of his time to perform operations aboard the Anastasis.

McColl told BBC News the simple gratitude of the patients makes up for the long hours of surgery on board ship

"While we were waiting to see one group this woman came up to me and flung her arms around me," he said. "She had been cured in an operation for a fistula the previous year and she had just come to thank me.

"That certainly did not happen in the waiting room at Guys."

McColl said there's a high morale on the ships and the atmosphere in the theatre is hilarious.

"You get withdrawal symptoms when you leave," he said.

The physician recalled the case of a man whose relatives had all been killed by rebels in Sierra Leone.

"They had taken an axe to the side of his head and we did extensive reconstructive surgery and he lived," he said. "But he had lost the will to live because of what had happened.

McColl said the 5-year-old daughter of the captain of the ship went to see the man and gave him a Christmas card and then read to him every night, because he had no visitors.

"She gave him back the will to live."