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Rachel Buckingham | Mercy Ships

It’s no exaggeration to say that without medical intervention I wouldn’t be here today, and I’m sure that will also be true for many reading this. Unfortunately, more than half of the world’s population still doesn’t have safe and affordable access to the treatment which could save their lives.

Mercy Ships was founded in 1978 to address this problem. Steering their floating hospitals to the communities which need them the most, the crew performs vital surgeries and trains up local medical professionals to multiply their impact.

Last year, Rachel Buckingham performed the first-ever surgery in a brand new ward on the purpose-built hospital ship, The Global Mercy. Rachel shares the journey that led her into medicine from the age of ten, and the life-changing impact of this organisation. 

Rachel with a child on Mercy Chips who has undergone surgery


What was your journey into medicine?

I began to think about doing medicine when I was ten; my grandmother was a medical missionary – and my dad was also a doctor – so that sparked the idea in my mind. At school we had to write an autobiography with a final chapter on our future; I talked about wanting to be like my grandmother and go abroad as a doctor, and then at the very end I wrote that my main ambition was to get to heaven!

Not long after I became a Christian, I was having a conversation about medicine with my sister, and she said that it would be really hard work. My response was: if that’s what God wants me to do, I’ll do it. So I chose my A Levels with a view to do medicine. One time during maths my calculator broke and I unscrewed the back to find a little bent bit of metal, I bent it back to how it should have been, put it back together again, and it worked. That made me think: I want to be a surgeon.

Your first patient!

Yes! So I went through medical school knowing that I wanted to do surgery, and that was when I hit upon orthopedics. The people who were doing orthopedics seemed to be really enjoying it, and it’s a very broad specialty, so you can end up operating on any age range, and a whole variety of different conditions. I set upon doing children’s orthopedics, and as my consultant career has gone on I’ve done more and more work with cerebral palsy, a form of damage to the developing brain which causes a problem with the way it sends messages to the muscles. Children can end up with twisted bones and contracted muscles that don’t work properly.


What is your role within the work Mercy Ships does?

Over the last 45 years, Mercy Ships has worked out what it can do well and safely, so it’s narrowed down the types of operations it will perform. Children’s orthopedics is one of the things that it does, and especially deformities of the lower limbs. There are essentially two conditions we treat, one is rickets and the other is something called Blount’s disease. Rickets is nutritional deficiency of vitamin D and calcium, so that bones are a bit soft and you end up with children who have either bow legs or severe knock knees, or sometimes one of each. Blount’s disease is a condition where the top of the tibia stops growing on the inside, so it gives severe bow legs, sometimes almost 90 degrees.

These deformities are very visible and painful, so it limits how much the kids can walk and impacts what they can do in life. A lot of them don’t go to school because they either feel really stigmatized or because the schools just won’t allow them. They won’t get jobs and a lot of them will end up begging. It’s really socially exclusive; we’ve spoken to families who have been told that they’re cursed.

They know that surgery would fix it, but they can’t afford it, so they’re desperate and will try anything.

Another stigmatizing condition which Mercy Ships treats is women who have had an obstructive labour and end up with a vesico-vaginal fistula, a connection between the bladder and the vagina which means they’re incontinent and just wet all the time. It leads to all sorts of other health problems and they are sometimes literally thrown out of the village, so they end up completely destitute. That’s another thing that Mercy Ships takes on to dramatically change people’s lives.


What impact do you see among your patients and their communities?

I’m only ever out for about three weeks at a time, so I hear some of the stories but I don’t see a lot of the impact directly. Mercy Ships will sometimes ask permission from patients and send a videographer to their home before they come to the ship so that they can follow their whole journey through. In one family, the little girl had severe bow legs and the parents had dug a hole in the ground and made her stand in it for two hours every day, thinking that would make her legs straight. They know that surgery would fix it, but they can’t afford it, so they’re desperate and will try anything.

I remember one child whose shin bone was twisted around so that his foot was literally pointing backwards; instead of walking heel-toe, he was walking toe-heel. I went to see him after his surgery with his feet pointing the right way, and he was just looking at his legs and beaming. One little boy had been born with his knees dislocated, so that they bent the wrong way; if he stood, his body would be parallel to the ground and he had to almost crawl on all fours. My predecessor, Frank, did an operation to get his legs straight, so that for the first time in his life he could actually stand upright. Frank told me that when the child came to the ship he was really withdrawn, but afterwards when he was able to stand upright, the smile on his face was amazing.

Our patients are arriving into a completely new environment. They might have never been on a boat or even seen the sea, and so when they step onto this sparkling, shiny, brand-new-looking hospital, knowing they’re about to have an operation, they’re withdrawn and scared. However, after they have their surgery and get through a few days of post-operative pain, you see a real change as they begin to play with the nurses and with each other; the whole place becomes like a party on the ward.


How can communities best support those who are unwell?

Just coming around people and being there for them. These kids on Mercy Ships are often ostracised, and not just by other kids: by adults as well. That happens in the UK too; if you’re a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, there are groups that understand what you’re going through, but somebody who’s not used to disabled children will often look the other way or feel awkward about talking to parents, or to their child who’s in a wheelchair. So what can communities do? Communities can be accepting and non-judgmental, and be aware of people’s struggles and when they might need help.

The same is true of death. We have a friend who was widowed very unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and she’s had people cross over the road and walk on the other side because they clearly didn’t know what to say. That’s often the way when somebody’s died; people feel very awkward and almost abandon somebody because they don’t know what to say to them, and yet that’s the worst thing you could do! It’s better just to ask, ‘I don’t know what to say, how can I help?’ Or just be there in silence. It’s similar with disability and ill health and all of those things as well.


How has your faith inspired or impacted your medical practice?

Jesus healed people unconditionally. He didn’t say to them, ‘I’ll heal you, but then you need to follow me,’ or ‘believe this, this and that, and then I’ll heal you.’ He just healed whoever came to him and asked, with no strings attached. He had compassion on people and understood that their health was so important, and if you’ve got a physical ailment that is defining your life, it needs dealing with. I’m fortunate that I’ve always been pretty healthy, but if you are ill – and I’ve suffered from migraines quite a bit – it’s completely all-consuming at the time. If something prevents you from living life then it needs dealing with, and that’s what Jesus was doing with no strings attached, which I think is where the Church sometimes gets things a bit wrong.

Some patients will say, ‘My healing started when I walked onto the ship, because I felt I was treated like a human being.’

Mercy Ships is an overtly Christian organisation with a lot of Christian volunteers, but there are volunteers who have no faith, or a different faith, and they’re completely accepted. A lot of our patients are Muslim because of the countries that we go to, and yet those countries invite Mercy Ships to come, knowing that they’re a Christian organisation. Again, our patients are treated with no strings and no questions asked; they’re just people in need and they’re treated.

For me, Mercy Ships is the best expression of Church: a bunch of people who have come from all over the world and are living and working together in community for the purpose of serving people who have no other means of being treated. You see a real can-do attitude amongst the crew; they will do jobs that are not necessarily theirs, they will go the extra mile and work extra hours; they will do whatever is needed to make it happen. I think it’s this Christian ethos and common purpose which it gives it that cohesion and forwards direction.

When you hear the testimonies of the patients afterwards, they’re absolutely bowled over.

You get a lot of adults who have had really big, deforming facial tumours – these are people who again get ostracised – and they come to the ship and get this sense that they are seen, and they are loved. That’s what comes through in the patients’ testimonies over and over. Some patients will say, ‘My healing started when I walked onto the ship, because I felt I was treated like a human being.’ It’s not just a physical transformation, it’s every level.




To find out more about Mercy Ships or to support their mission, click here.

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This is a beautiful story! Thank you, Rachel, and Logan for hosting it.

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