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African Student’s Circle of Service on the Mercy Ship

By on March 9, 2012 in Featured, Pro Bono with 0 Comments

Eighteen years later Tina Regina Conteh is back in Sierra Leone as a volunteer for Mercy Ships, after growing up in Australia thanks to the nation’s refugee resettlement program. Photo: Mercy Ships

by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

A young Sierra Leonean woman has made a trip back to the African country of her birth as a volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy, a floating hospital operated by Garden Valley, Tx Mercy Ships. She is alive today thanks to a Mercy Ships medical intervention by one of its doctors almost two decades ago.

At the start of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war in the early 1990’s, 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. They took her to the local hospital but did not have the money to pay for a Caesarean section.

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 paid the fee himself.

Catherine Conteh had a healthy baby girl, Tina Regina Conteh. She was saved but the 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.

Eighteen years later Tina Regina Conteh is back in Sierra Leone as a volunteer for Mercy Ships, after growing up in Australia thanks to the nation’s refugee resettlement program.

“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,” said the 18-year-old Tina Regina Conteh.

Dr. Lauri Romanzi (l), Clinical Associate Professor of Urology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center Division of Female Pelvic Medicine who will volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy this spring. Photo: Mercy Ships

Pregnancy remains a major health risk for women in Africa despite progress in Millennium Development Goal 5 aimed at reducing the world’s maternal mortality ration by three quarters by 2015.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), skilled personnel attend only 42% of births in Africa. 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.

In 2002 the problems experienced by Catherine Conteh, along with other issues in years following, contributed to the initial development of the Mercy Ships vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) and rectovaginal fistula (RVF) program. The surgical program onboard the Africa Mercy not only repairs obstetric fistula but also provides specialized surgical training for African surgeons, increasing awareness of the condition in their nations.

“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,” explained Dr. Lauri Romanzi, Clinical Associate Professor of Urology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center Division of Female Pelvic Medicine who will volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy this spring. “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.”

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. Approximately 60-70 women have been accepted for fistula surgery during the Mercy Ships visit in the port of Lomé.

Serving a short while onboard the Africa Mercy, Tina Regina is on a path to help women and children through improved maternal health. She is creating a circle of service as she aspires to reach her goal of becoming a registered nurse and dedicating her life to helping others.

Regina hopes upon finishing 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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