Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Seafarer’s Heart for Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships, a global humanitarian organization, serves a very unique mission. Mercy Ships operates the Africa Mercy, a state-of-the-art hospital ship that provides free medical care to the poorest of the poor in West Africa. Cataracts, disfiguring tumors, hernias, cataracts and goiters are removed. Burn contractures and misshapen limbs are straightened. Post-childbirth injuries and cleft lips are repaired.

Thousands upon thousands of children and adults have been welcomed back into their homes, communities and livelihoods thanks to the healing provided by Mercy Ships. While the medical service given free of charge by Mercy Ships is quite visible, there is also less visible, but equally essential, work required to support the Africa Mercy’s hospital and her medical crew.

This “out of view” work is found deep within the Africa Mercy. Her internal systems, machines and mechanics are under the care of a cadre of professional mariners. The individuals who comprise the Africa Mercy’s engineering staff complete rigorous academic and technical training, as well as an extensive on-the-job internship. In addition, they continuously hone their expertise through a variety of professional development activities.

An integral member of the Africa Mercy’s Engineering Department is mechanic/fitter Denis Sokolov. Denis hails from a family with deep connections to seafaring, explaining with his signature smile, “I come by my mariner’s heart honestly. My father was a seaman for 37 years. He and my mother met and married while they were both working onboard a cargo vessel.” When Denis graduated from technical school, he initially chose a land-based career.

He relocated to England to work in an automobile repair operation. While in England, Denis learned to speak English, and he also decided that his true vocation was as a seafarer. Although qualified to work in the shipyards when he returned to his hometown of Klaipèda, Lithuania, Denis eagerly took the opportunity to earn his “sea spurs” by working alongside his father on a commercial vessel. “I needed to log the required number of hours of sea experience for my credentials.

My Dad showed me how to innovate solutions and be inventive about making things work with parts and supplies on hand. This year-long mentorship gave me an excellent foundation, so that today I can tackle virtually any mechanical or machine-related issue,” he explains. Hard at work in the Engine Room onboard the Africa Mercy Denis continued his career as a mechanic/fitter on a variety of commercial vessels. “I was now married and had a young son.

Family and my faith are very important to me, so my priority was to get onto a good ship that gave me more opportunities to be at home,” he confides. The ideal ship for a family man came Denis’ way via his manning agent, a company that matches seafarers with positions on ocean-going vessels. “My agent asked me if I wanted to go with the Africa Mercy while she was still being converted from a rail ferry into a hospital ship.

I was only going to stay for three months, but after sailing with the Africa Mercy on her maiden voyage in 2007, I felt called to continue. My work with Mercy Ships is very good. The engines are like my babies, and there are so many things I can do to be of help,” he remarks. The Africa Mercy has turned out to be an ideal fit for Denis. “I knew that a seaman’s life, in addition to the harsh and heavy work, meant many months away from home and family.

I am very grateful that my work schedule with Mercy Ships lets me spend more time at home in Lithuania with my family, especially our thirteen-year-old son, Dmitry.” Onboard the Africa Mercy, the first things everyone notices about Denis are his kind eyes and warm smile.

His solid build and obvious strength signal a comforting certainty that the complex mechanical systems and components throughout the Africa Mercy are in very good hands. In fact, Denis’ skillful and dexterous hands are important assets in his service for Mercy Ships.

Years of experience have enabled Denis to use his hands with surgical precision, much like the hands that bring hope and healing in the Africa Mercy’s operating theaters. Missy Brown, the hospital OR Supervisor, is grateful for Denis’ expertise and versatility. “The core of one of the OR’s surgical mallets broke apart after years of service. Within an hour, Denis had hand-machined a new core in his workshop.

It is a blessing to have someone onboard who can retrofit just about anything,” she explains. Denis SokolovSecond Engineer Joseph Biney, who supervises all of the engine room functions, also appreciates the consistent professionalism that Denis and other engineering crew bring to their roles. “The Africa Mercy, like all marine vessels of its size and capacity, must meet rigorous standards of mechanical fitness.

The standards are closely governed through a regular schedule of on-site inspections, improvement works orders and compliance checks. Thanks to the steadfast efforts of our fine engineering crew, including Denis, the Africa Mercy was recently cleared for five more years of service.” Prior to going on leave, Denis puts in as many hours as needed to finish up major projects and minimize the potential for any issues arising in his absence. “I try to make sure there are no surprises for anyone while I’m away and that there are no surprises waiting for me when I get back!”

Denis also plays an important role in providing guidance and expert advice to engine room crew who volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy. He mentors young marine cadets who volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy for work experience. In addition, seasoned professionals – like Tim Abramoff, who brings a wealth of welding expertise to the Africa Mercy – appreciate having Denis to consult with. “This is my first time working in a marine setting.

Denis is the ideal ‘go to’ person to confirm my thinking about a course of action or to provide input drawn from his years of experience,” Tim comments. Engine Hand Michael Graham has dubbed Denis “the Incinerator Whisperer,” saying, “Like the horse whisperer, Denis has this uncanny ability to know what a machine needs. The repair I thought I had completed on our incinerator didn’t take. Denis walked by, looked at the flame, touched some pipes, read some pressure gages and declared the fix. Within short order, the right fix was completed.”

The hospital onboard the Africa Mercy is the anchor of the Mercy Ships mission to deliver hope and healing to the forgotten poor. The consistent and dedicated service of long-time crew members like seafarer Denis Sokolov make sure those anchors hold fast and stay strong.

Written by Joanne Thibault 
Edited by Nancy Predaina 
Photographs by JJ Tiziou, Debra Bell

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