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Ship of Doctors Heals Thousands in Africa

Many surgical procedures taken for granted in the West are not available to the world's poorest people. Yet, a dedicated crew of doctors and nurses, aboard "Mercy Ships," bring hope and healing to those in need, with the finest medical equipment and specialists on board. VOA's Mandy Clark met up with one of the volunteer surgeons who regularly travels aboard Mercy Ships along the West African coast.

Peter McDermott is a facial surgeon in London. He spends most days removing minor tumors and other imperfections, but for a few weeks every year he pushes his skills to the limit.

He does it, along with hundreds of other doctors, nurses and specialists aboard a Mercy Ship. They volunteer their skills to transform the lives of people in Africa, who cannot get help anywhere else because they simply are too poor.

"The degree of poverty -- somehow, you see it when you watch it on television and you think, 'Oh, these poor people.' But, I think when you are actually in there, you can see it, smell it, touch it. You are in amongst it and the overwhelming need of people. It really touches you," Dr. McDermott said.

The medical personnel on Mercy Ships specialize in the healing of horrific facial deformities of people in places where often little or no professional health care of any kind exists. Mercy Ships' three vessels, staffed by thousands of volunteers, have provided more than 32,000 surgeries.

The organization also runs 900 development projects that include clinics and the training of local doctors with modern surgical techniques.

On a recent trip, Dr. McDermott was in Benin. There he met Alfred -- a teenager from a small fishing village. When Alfred was 10 his face became disfigured from a rare and rapidly growing facial tumor. The tumor began to close off his throat, making breathing and eating nearly impossible.

Dr. Dermott explains, "His tongue was pushed to the top of his mouth. I was involved in reconstructing his jaw with hip grafts and things and the transformation from a child who really knew he was down and out and dying into a cheeky, lippy 15-year-old boy was absolutely wonderful. He was just an absolute delight."

Dr. Dermott says, for most people, their face is strongly linked to their identity. He says for people with deformities, getting back their original, healthy face helps reclaim their identity.

The doctor says the work on Mercy Ships tests his skills and ability but it is not the professional challenge that brings him back every year. Dr. Dermott says, "It's a way of putting back into mankind and womankind something that perhaps some of us take for granted. "

And, he says it is seeing hope and joy return to those who had lost it that makes each Mercy Ships journey worthwhile.