Save Lives on the High Seas

May 1, 2011
A hospital ship is the last hope of many in West Africa. This is an SOS to potential logistics partners.

Not many people look at a ship and think, “That’s my last hope for survival.” But thousands of forgotten poor in West Africa do think this. Mercy Ships brings hope and healing—via a big white hospital ship—to people who desperately need it.

Mercy Ships operates the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, which is equipped with six operating theaters, a 78-bed hospital ward, a CT scan, a laboratory and 450 volunteer crewmembers with a desire to help others. The nearly 500-ft-long Africa Mercy provides free surgeries and medical assistance to people who have no access to even basic medical care. Doctors and nurses come from all over the world to serve with Mercy Ships—to repair cleft lips and palates, to remove unsightly tumors and to give sight to the blind through cataract removal, among other life-changing, even life-saving, surgeries.

Extreme Demand

At the International Operations Center in Garden Valley, Texas, I get to see the logistical side of running an international charity first-hand. Equipping a hospital on the other side of the world is nothing short of a miracle, and our International Procurement Department does an exceptional job in keeping up with the demands of a first-class hospital that is 5,500 miles away.

Onboard the ship, we perform approximately 7,000 surgical interventions per year. To keep the hospital supplied for the high volume of patients, we send at least 24 forty-foot containers to the ship each year. Nearly every item on the Africa Mercy —medical supplies, medical equipment, laboratory materials, medications, food, coffee, paper products, books, office supplies, furniture—is shipped from one of two locations, either Garden Valley, Texas, or Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

In-Kind Donations

Mercy Ships is grateful to have many of our medical needs met by corporate donors. Each year, approximately $4 million worth of product, equipment, and supplies are given to us through in-kind donations. Alcon, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and BD (a global medical technology company) are just a few corporate partnerships Mercy Ships has secured over the years.

We value the tremendous in-kind donations we receive, but we are still left with the shipping costs of getting those materials to the ship. Trucking companies, shipping companies and logistics service providers typically aren’t aware of Mercy Ships, so it’s difficult to get on their radar as a charity of choice. However, we could benefit greatly from partnerships with those types of companies.

For instance, the cost to ship just one container is approximately $5,500. Or, for that amount, we could operate on 15 children with bowed legs—eliminating their disability and giving them straight legs. Or restore sight to 22 people who are blind from cataracts. In other words, corporate donations to help cover shipping costs allow us to literally transform more lives than we can otherwise.

Supply Chain on a Shoe-String

Mercy Ships faces significant supply chain challenges. Tracking inventory worldwide is difficult. Lists of needs for the ship must be sent in spreadsheets, and processes are complicated and laborious. Depending on available funding, we plan to upgrade our current inventory software to not only better meet the needs of the Africa Mercy, but for future ships as well.

At the International Operations Center, we manage 15,500 square feet of warehouse space. Our team stages containers by pulling product from the shelves, using an outdated forklift and minimal staff. When the container arrives, the supplies are loaded in 45 minutes, ready to be trucked to the port in Houston.

One way Mercy Ships sends temperature-sensitive medical supplies to the ship is through checked luggage on airplane flights. Approximately 10 rolling ice chests per year are sent with volunteers or Mercy Ships personnel traveling to the ship. This is the fastest way to transport refrigerated supplies like media plates, vaccines, and hospital lab supplies.

If you’d like to help Mercy Ships in its mission of serving the forgotten poor in West Africa, please call 903-939-7000 or email [email protected]. Your partnership will literally change lives, giving hope to thousands of people anxiously waiting for the big white hospital ship to sail into port.

Claire Bufe served as a journalist with Mercy Ships in Togo, West Africa, for three months in 2010. She now works as the U.S. public relations liason at the Mercy Ships International Operations Center in Garden Valley, Texas.

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