Ailsa Malone, a 26-year-old dentist from Stirling, has recently returned home from volunteering on a floating hospital, which docks in some of the poorest countries in the world, providing vital medical care to the world’s forgotten poor. The hospital, a 16,000 tonne state-of-the-art ship called the Africa Mercy, is run by international charity Mercy Ships and is currently docked in Madagascar.
With a crew of more than 450 volunteers from over 40 nations, Mercy Ships delivers free health care and education, specialising in a wide range of medical needs. Dental care, however, is a key part of their work as dental services are almost non-existent in the countries Mercy Ships visits. This is particularly the case for Madagascar where there are only 57 qualified dentists to treat a population of 22 million.
Reflecting on her experience, Ailsa said: “The whole experience of volunteering on the ship was very inspiring. There is a real sense of community on board and the other volunteers, who come from all over the world, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Living on a ship was also really exciting!
“When I first arrived in Madagascar, witnessing the level of dental neglect was very difficult. It sadly goes hand in hand with extreme poverty. Dental hygiene isn't something that is very high on their list of priorities and many just can't afford dental, or medical, treatment. The patients I treated in Madagascar were so grateful to be seen by a dentist. Many of them had travelled for days to visit us and most of them had never seen a dentist before.
“Most of the medical care is carried out on the ship — in the wards and surgical theatres on board. The dental clinic, however, is situated 10 minutes from the ship in a large centre that was set up by Mercy Ships. In the clinic we worked closely with the day workers. These were locals from Madagascar who had been trained to be dental nurses by Mercy Ships volunteers and were paid a basic salary. They were fantastic to work with, very willing to learn and take direction. Mercy Ships always aims to leave a lasting legacy in every country it visits, improving the provision of healthcare in any way it can.
“The first time I saw the dental screening queue was a big shock. There were over 400 people waiting to be screened, hoping to be one of the lucky 150 selected for dental treatment. Due to the huge demand and shortage of dentists and time, we had to select those in greatest need. This happened every Monday and Thursday, and many people would return numerous times until they were chosen.
“We had lots of children who came to see us in the dental clinic, most of them had never visited a dentist before and needed multiple extractions. Maintaining their cooperation and keeping them calm was definitely a challenge — we became very reliant on cuddly toys, stickers and blowing bubbles!
“On a typical day I would provide up to 20 fillings and extract up to 40 teeth. I also saw a lot of severe and long-standing infections. Some patients had large facial swellings and were in a lot of pain.
“There is definitely a supportive environment in the dental clinic, however the key is to be able to think on your feet, work with what you’ve got and make your patient feel comfortable. It was a learning curve, but as a result I have come home feeling more confident about working independently, which will no doubt help me at this stage in my career.
“Sometimes when I had a bit of spare time I would visit friends who volunteered on the wards. This gave me greater insight into the medical side of the Mercy Ships' work, learning about the life-saving surgeries that took place on the ship. I also got to spend time and play games with a number of the patients, and witness their journey of recovery.
“Coming home was surprisingly hard after volunteering with Mercy Ships — you expect to experience a culture shock when visiting a new country, but actually I felt it equally when I returned home. I had enjoyed being surrounded by people all the time and the simplicity of living with minimal personal belongings, so it was strange to return to the luxuries of the UK and have so much time to myself.
“The whole experience is one of the best things I have ever done. I have made some life-long friends on the ship and I can’t wait to go back!”
This year Mercy Ships is taking part in the #GivingTuesday campaign which takes place on Tuesday 1st December. To support Mercy Ships and make a donation you can text “GTMS15 £2” to 70070 or alternatively please visit our website: https://www.mercyships.org.uk/.